After failing to link the Working Families coalition of unions to the governing Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives now want to clip the anti-Tory group’s wings.
Ontario should consider limits on the amounts third-party bodies can spend on advertising during election campaigns, Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Tuesday.
The coalition — supported by teacher unions and others — spent $2.1 million on ads attacking the Conservatives in last fall’s election. The Tories had a healthy lead in the polls before the campaign but voters returned Premier Dalton McGuinty with a minority.
Hudak said he wouldn’t support an outright ban on advertising by groups like Working Families, but called for an examination of spending limits given that Ottawa caps spending at $188,000 per group in federal campaigns.
“That’s a good question that needs to be looked at in terms of do we need to update Ontario’s election laws to keep at par with other jurisdictions that have addressed this more recently,” he told reporters.
“I believe in freedom of speech.”
Late last month, the Conservatives lost a major court battle when the Ontario Court of Appeal unanimously rejected Tory claims that Working Families is a Liberal front group.
Hudak has since been pushing reforms that would limit the power of unions, including a measure allowing union members to “opt out” of union contributions to political causes they don’t support, such as Working Families.
“A lot of union members are concerned that their union dues are being used for political causes that they want nothing to do with,” he reiterated.
Working Families spokesman Pat Dillon charged Hudak is “looking at how he can weaken unions” and said the Tory leader “wants to keep the door open for his rich supporters” to provide right-wing ads in the next campaign.
A study by York University released during last October’s election race found McGuinty’s Liberals have been the beneficiaries of “loose” campaign finance rules allowing unlimited third-party ads that make a mockery of spending limits for political parties.
“We need the teeth of the federal rules if we’re to keep elections from being swayed,” concluded York associate politics professor Robert MacDermid, noting Working Families spent $1.1 million in the 2007 election.
Their spending almost doubled in last fall’s campaign, to an amount equal to about 25 per cent of Liberal campaign spending.
The Conservatives are considering whether to seek leave to appeal the latest court ruling on Working Families to the Supreme Court of Canada, said spokesman Alan Sakach.
“We still believe Working Families is not an independent group.’
The Conservatives face the possibility of paying up to $100,000 in the unions’ legal costs in the case.
With a byelection looming in Kitchener-Waterloo to replace retired Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer, Dillon said Working Families is “contemplating” what role it will play.
Teacher and other unions that have supported the coalition are now in tense negotiations with the cash-strapped McGuinty government, which is facing a $15 billion deficit and seeking a wage freeze for all public-sector workers.