Green Party leader Elizabeth May attempts to make history on May 2, by winning in Saanich-Gulf Islands near Victoria and becoming Canada’s first Green MP. But the Victoria area has also been notable for the mysterious emergence of a plethora of supposedly independent “third party” advertisers supporting Conservative candidates in the closing days in each of the last two election campaigns in 2006 and 2008. The groups were mainly funded by Conservative contributors and their spouses, were facilitated by Conservative campaign managers, and used the local Conservative media planner, Treehouse Media. This overall pattern is evidence of possible collusion to circumvent Elections Canada campaign spending and contribution limits.
The battle between Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Conservative cabinet member Gary Lunn for the southern Vancouver Island riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, just outside Victoria, is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested and closely watched races in the May 2 Canadian election. Not only is May seeking to make history as the Canada’s first ever Green MP, but the Victoria area has an interesting electoral story of its own.
Last time around in 2008, Lunn eked out a narrow victory over the Liberals’ Briony Penn, thanks in part to a shadowy network of five local third-party advertisers that popped up to support Lunn on the last weekend of the campaign. Four of the five fly-by-night organizations shared the same financial agent and used the same contact address, which happened to be the law office of Conservative riding association vice-president Bruce Hallsor. The resulting accusations of collusion to breach election spending limits have still not been resolved by Elections Canada.
Today, I’ll present new evidence about that case. It turns out that the tactic of dubious last-minute third-party advertising was first used in the neighbouring Victoria riding in the losing 2005-2006 election bid by Conservative Robin Baird. The links of the third parties to the Conservatives were, if anything, even more obvious – two of the ostensibly independent organizations showed involvement by contributors to Baird’s campaign, while the third was led by the wife of a local Conservative fund-raiser. Even worse, all three were apparently steered to the Conservatives’ regional media consultant, Steve Hutchinson of Treehouse Media, to co-ordinate creation and placement of advertising, a hitherto unnoticed pattern that was repeated in 2008. And in both 2006 and 2008, Conservative advertising was purchased up to the week before election, while the third parties took over all advertising spending after that date. Thus, there is now even clearer and more compelling evidence that these fictional “third parties” may be best understood as part of a Conservative initiative to fashion a last minute “push”, while circumventing election spending and contribution limits.
Canada’s election spending laws
Before jumping into the details of the various electoral shenanigans, I’ll briefly summarize Canada’s regulated election spending regime. It was originally brought in by the the Liberal government of Jean Chretien a dacade or so ago, and has the following features:
- Strict limits on political party national and local campaign spending based on the number of electors in ridings (electoral districts) where each party is running candidates.
- Limits on contributions to political parties (originally $5000, now reduced to $1100 and restricted to individuals).
- Limits to contributions to electoral campaigns, also set at $1100.
- Spending limits during election campaigns for registered, independent third parties of approximately $3000 per riding, up to a national limit of $150,000), but no contribution limits.
- Transparency of contributions to both political parties and registered third parties, including the individual source of each contribution over $200.
Previous Canadian law dating back to the 1970s had prohibited third-party election spending outright, but that was overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997, although the Court did allow that some restrictions were valid. The law introducing the current restrictions was bitterly contested by the libertarian National Citizens Coalition, led then by one Stephen Harper. Lower courts in Alberta sided with Harper and declared the law unconstitutional, but in 2002 the Supreme Court reversed those decisions and upheld the current law.
Earlier this year, four Conservatives, including two recently appointed Senators, were charged in connection with a 2006 “in-out” scheme whereby funds used for the national campaign were declared as local spending by passing funds briefly through some candidates’ local accounts (including several in British Columbia), resulting in alleged overspending to the tune of more than $1 million. It was during that same election that Robin Baird mounted a vigourous bid for election in Victoria.
A look at Robin Baird’s election spending statement for the 2005-2006 campaign shows a campaign relatively flush with cash (ending with a surplus $14,000), but bumping up against the local spending limit as the election day of January 23, 2006 drew near. That limit was set at just over $84,000 in Election Canada’s announcement of January 16, just eight days before the election. The lion’s share of the spending subject to the limit went to advertising ($50,000) and a survey ($10, 000), with the rest going to salaries and office expenses. The final total was about $2500 under the limit, so clearly there was little room for additional advertising.
The records show that the local campaign had spent virtually all its TV, radio and print advertising dollars, chiefly with Treehouse Media, by the end of December 2005, leaving it with little additional money to spend in the second half of the campaign (of course, some of the money may have been earmarked for advertising spread into latter half of the campaign). A $15,000 payment in early January to the national advertising arm, the Conservative Fund of Canada, presumably as part of the “in-out” scheme mentioned previously, used up the remaining local advertising allocation.
That brings us to late January, and the formation of two “one-week wonders”, the Friends of Robin Baird`and Victoria Voters for Robin Baird. The agents for these mysterious new third parties were Janey Gudewill, a well-known Victoria philanthropist and matriarch of the family, and her son Nick. Reports for Friends and Victoria Voters filed with Elections Canada show that both organizations paid Treehouse Media January 18 for advertisements to be placed in that weekend’ s Times-Colonist newspaper. Not only that, all the contributions were also dated January 18 (except for one from January 15). The final action was registration as third party election advertisers on January 20, and the two organizations were never heard from again.
An examination of Robin Baird’s contribution list is also revealing. Several donors contributed both in December and then under the wire in cheques dated on election day. This suggests a straightforward strategy of “returning to the well” to shore up contributions (although as we have seen the campaign ended up in surplus).
But somehow, two Baird campaign donors switched in midstream to support the third parties instead. These included Janey Gudewill herself, and Clare Copeland. A third donor, Peter Pollen, had contributed to the Conservative Party on January 8, 10 days before, while other donors had previously given to the Canadian Alliance, the Conservative predecessor.
And make no mistake, the sole purpose of these “organizations” was to place a single advertisement each. The Holmes family even provided “top up” cheques on behalf of each group’s contributions to the exact amount charged by Treehouse for each advertisement. It’s almost as if the cheques were cut there and then in the Treehouse office on that fateful day, just five days before the election.
It is simply inconceivable that the Gudewills, on their own, decided to break off and form their own little organizations, raise money, independently contact the Conservative media manager Treehouse, place advertising and register themselves with Elections Canada, all in the space of a few days. Someone at the Conservative Party must have approached them, or at least suggested this as an alternative to further contributions to the Baird campaign, and steered them to Treehouse to handle all the details. The Gudewills themselves may not have even realized the possible illegitimacy of the initiative.
In the case of Donna Evans, I’m somewhat less inclined to be charitable. The Victoria real estate agent’s group Common Sense Advocacy of Victoria contracted with Treehouse the day before the Gudewills. Common Sense’s Elections Canada report shows that the group’s links to the Conservative Party were even clearer than those of the Gudewills.
Once again, a major Baird campaign contributor, Roland Beaulieu, also showed up in the Common Sense contributor list. And two others were spouses of Baird contributors: Mimi Beaulieu and Fraser McColl (husband of Denise McColl), while a fourth, James “Jim” Allard of Port Coquitlam, was a frequent contributor to Canadian Alliance/Conservative MP James Moore. Even worse, Common Senses address was listed as 800-1070 Douglas St. – which happens to be the Victoria address of the law firm of one Bruce Hallsor. Tellingly, all of the contributions came *after* the contract date with Treehouse Media, mostly the next day.
Hallsor, who went on to become a key figure in the 2008 edition of dubious third parties, was not only vice-president of the neighbouring Saanich-Gulf Islands Conservative riding association, but was also British Columbia campaign co-chair during the 2006 election campaign. In fact, he was named (but never charged) in the 2006 “in-out scheme”, since several B.C. candidates’ local accounts were used for that purpose (including Baird’s, as previously noted).
And, keeping it all within the extended Conservative family, Donna Evans’s husband Robert D (Bob) Evans is a Conservative activist who later served as local Conservative fundraising chair, again in Saanich-Gulf Islands, as well as events chair.
Here too, Treehouse Media provided one stop shopping for an ad in the Times Colonist on January 21 (the Saturday before the election), a mere four days after the contract date, and one day after the final contribution.
In all, the three “third party” Times Colonist ads cost just shy of $8500. That may not seem like a lot, but remember this is a local Canadian election campaign subject to strict expense limits (thankfully, we have yet to see the kind of American-style uncontrolled spending). In fact, the total media advertising via Treehouse was only $31,000 for the Baird campaign, including just $16,000 for print media. So the “third party” advertising provided a significant boost on the crucial last weekend relative to the total advertising budget – a boost that would not have been available within the Conservative spending limit.
2008 Saanich-Gulf Islands
Round 2 in this saga shifts to neighbouring riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, where Conservative natural resources minister Gary Lunn took on Liberal environmental activist Briony Penn. In large part because of Lunn’s strong pro-development stance, environmental issues such as climate change and oil tanker traffic were front and centre. And the early withdrawal of the NDP candiadte Julian West after the revival of a long ago personal scandal made the race even closer.
The campaign also featured dirty tricks rarely seen in Canadian politics. For example, a mysterious robocall campaign urged voters to support the NDP’s West, whose name would still appear on the eventual ballot despite his withdrawal three weeks previously.
And on the final weekend of the campaign, lo and behold, there was a new crop of third party advertisements from groups never heard from since, all supporting Gary Lunn. This time, though, the phenomenon did not go unnoticed.
Gary Lunn did manage to squeak through and rejoined the Harper Conservative minority government. But in the ensuing weeks the victory was tainted with a number of emabarrassing revelations and questions, albeit mostly confined to the alternative media. In a series of articles for the online Tyee, Andrew McLeod identified five suspect “third party” groups and outlined their Conservative connections, as summarized in his recent Common Ground article on the current race between Lunn and Elizabeth May.
But bogus robo-calls aren’t the only allegation of dirty tricks committed by Gary Lunn’s campaign.
While his campaign spent close to its legal limit, what caught the eye of election watchers was the fact that five third party advertisers spent another $15,000 on advertising endorsing Lunn. One of the groups, Citizens Against Higher Taxes, said it bought signs from Lunn’s campaign co-manager Byng Giraud.
At the time, The Tyee reported the advertisers in question appeared to have close links to Lunn’s team. Four of the groups shared the same financial agent and were registered out of the office of lawyer Bruce Hallsor. At the time, Hallsor was vice-president of the Conservative’s Saanich-Gulf Islands riding association. He is also a long time Conservative organizer federally, a former Canadian Alliance Party candidate and a provincial Liberal.
Another was registered under the name of Patricia Trottier, whose husband is Gwyn Morgan, the former president and CEO of EnCana Corporation and a former fundraiser for the Canadian Alliance and Conservative parties. [Liberal candidate]Penn said her campaign workers saw people from Lunn’s team with a pick-up truck carrying signs from one of the supposed third-party groups.
That’s all damning enough, but now there’s even more evidence, when viewed in light of the 2006 pattern in Victoria (unfortunately missed in the reporting of this story so far).
Here are the five groups, each with its leader identified, and linked to its corresponding Elections Canada report:
- Economic Advisory Council of Saanich (Patricia Trottier c/o Bruce Hallsor’s law office at 800-1070 Douglas St., Victoria)
- Dean Park Advocacy Association (Ralph Bodine, c/o BH law office)
- Saanich Peninsula Citizens Council (Dana Dickinson c/o BH law office)
- Citizens Against Higher Taxes (Lynda Farmer c/o BH law office)
- Common Sense Advocacy of Victoria (Donna Evans)
I’ll get back to Bruce Hallsor and Donna Evans in a moment. But first I’ll show how the 2006 pattern of reliance on Conservative contributors and suppliers played out once again.
On the contribution front, a re-examination of the third party reports and other contribution data from Elections Canada shows even more Conservative connections than were found by the Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod when the reports first became available in March 2009.
Patricia Trottier (and her husband Gwyn Morgan) had contributed the maximum allowable (or very close to it) to the Conservative Party in each of 2006, 2007 and 2008. Starting in 2007, though, the Harper government lowered the contribution limit to political parties from $5000 to $1000, while donations to third parties were left with no upper limit, save those on the spending side. As the so-called Economic Advisory Council of Saanich’s only contributor, Trottier provided $3665, right at the single riding spending limit for third parties. (Meanwhile, Morgan contributed a whopping $20,000, the single largest campaign contribution by far, to support the National Citizens Coalition attack ad against the Liberal carbon tax proposal).
One of Common Sense’s contributors, Louis Webster, had contributed to Baird’s 2006 campaign. Another Common Sense contributor, “Hyacu Air Ltd” appears to actually be Hyack Air, owned by James “Jim” Allard, who had contributed to Common Sense in 2006. Allard also contributed to Conservative MP James Moore’s 2008 campaign. Saanich Peninsula Council contributor Craig Mearns contributed $1000 to the Conservative Party in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and another $250 to 2008 Conservative Victoria candidate Jack McClintock for good measure.
Thus, at least two of the contributors (Trottier and Mearns) had maxed out their allowable party contributions, providing even more incentive for the “third party” option.
[Update, May 3: Electoral law does permit an individual to give an additional $1100 to a party’s or candidate’s campaign. The following contributions would have therefore exceeded the limit, had they been given to the official Lunn campaign instead of the “third party” advertiser.
- $3,665 Patricia Trottier (Economic Advisory Council of Saanich)
- $3500 Ralph & Linda Bodine (Dean Park Advocacy Association)
- $2,177.50 Brian Barrett (Common Sense Advocacy of Victoria)
- $1,500 Van Isle Marina (Saanich Peninsula Citizens Council)
- $1,500 Craig Mearns (Saanich Peninsula Citizens Council)
- $1,500 Lynda Farmer (Citizens Against Higher Taxes)
So at least one of the contributions to each of the “third parties” would have exceeded the campaign contribution limit. And company donations (i.e. Van Isle Marina and Hyack Air) would not have been permissable . ]
Once again suppliers to the local Conservative campaign were also co-incidentally tapped by the “third parties”. Only one of the third party reports forthrightly mentioned Treehouse Media (Dickinson’s Saanich Penisula Citizens Council). But an examination of the voucher numbers of two other reports shows similar numbering system with nearly matching prefixes, with voucher numbers 01 and 02 in Trottier’s and Bodine’s reports followed by vouchers 03 and 04 in Dickinson’s. So it is reasonable to presume that Treehouse took care of all three advertisers. Another common element is the listing of a “supplier” listed as “Creative Production” using the same voucher number as the Times-Colonist advertisements – and the same fee of $210.
As in 2006, ads were placed in the Times-Colonist on the final weekend in the campaign, with the added twist of radio ads on local station CFAX. And, once again, the Lunn campaign advertising spending with Treehouse stops a week before the election date, just before the third parties took over.
The same thing happened with the supplier of signs to the fourth “third party”, Farmer’s Citizens Against Higher Taxes. Byng Giraud was not only co-manager of Lunn’s campaign, but he had also supplied signs to Robin Baird’s 2006 campaign. And he supplied signs to the 2008 Lunn campaign, too – but not in the final week of the campaign.
As for Evans’s miraculously resurrected Common Sense Advocacy, it was the one organization not to use Hallsor’s address or go through a standard Conservative supplier. But of course she had done exactly that first time around in 2006; presumably, it was felt that an impression of independence would be helpful in 2008.
In all, $15,000 was spent by the five third parties, including $13,000 on newspaper and radio advertising, a significant boost to the Lunn campaign’s Treehouse advertising budget of $35,000. Meanwhile, the Lunn campaign’s overall spending subject to limits came within $2000 of the prescribed limit.
All of this new evidence sheds a harsh light on statements by Donna Evans and Bruce Hallsor made just after the election in 2008.
Here’s Donna Evans a week after the October 2008 election as reported by the Tyee’s MacLeod:
“I really don’t have anything to tell you about it,” she said. “It’s just a little group of friends that I know.”
The group, pooling their money, bought an ad in a newspaper for around $3,000 to support Gary Lunn, said the Victoria real estate agent. …
Why not just give to his campaign? “Because I don’t generally contribute to campaigns, that’s all,” she said. ” … We raised the money. Why couldn’t we have a say in spending it?”
Perhaps Evans herself does not “contribute to campaigns”, but, as we saw above, several of her contributors in 2006 and 2008 were also Conservative contributors or closely connected to them.
In the same Tyee article, Bruce Hallsor downplayed his role:
Hallsor said none of the advertisers has done anything illegal and it’s coincidental they used his services. “I’m pretty well known in this area,” he said. “My role has been to file and make sure they properly file with Elections Canada.”
Hallsor said he was just a volunteer on Lunn’s campaign, though it had earlier been reported that he would be managing the re-election bid.
But now that we know that Hallsor was also involved in 2006, when he was a B.C. Conservative campaign co-chair, that evasiveness rings particularly hollow.
The key unanswered question is: what else did local Conservatives like Hallsor and Giraud do?
The involvement of Giraud in supplying signs to the so-called Citizens Against Higher Taxes is bad enough. But the apparent use of Treehouse Media by all six other advertsisers (three in 2006, and three in 2008) is particularly disturbing.
It is inconceivable that the use by all six groups of the same media planner as the Conservative campaigns is “coincidental”. Treehouse Media is a media planner and buyer, involved in all aspects of their clients’ media campaign. Surely, dealing with one-off advertisements from hastily formed organizations, and turning them around in a day or two, is not the norm. Not only is the presumption that the “third parties” were steered by Conservatives to Treehouse entirely justified, but the fast action by Treehouse can only be explained by the prior relationship with the Conservative campaign.
The dates of Lunn’s Times-Colonist or radio ads is not known precisely, but the spending pattern suggests that the bulk of the ads may have run earlier, leaving the final weekend for “third party” ads. So a key question becomes exactly when Treehouse became aware of the pending third party ads, and if that affected the Conservative media plan. Another key question is whether Treehouse offered reduced pricing based on the multiplicity of groups, and their common association with an existing client.
Elections Canada role
After the release of the “third party” reports and the initial analysis by the Tyee, Elections Canada downplayed the evidence of collusion.
Elections Canada spokesperson Maureen Keenan said the agency’s policy is to neither confirm nor deny whether an investigation is underway.
There’s nothing in the law to prohibit four groups from sharing a financial agent, she said. As for collusion, she said, it is a matter of whether spending limits were broken.
Two years later, there is still no official word from Elections Canada on the matter, although several citizen complaints have reportedly been received. Now that there is even more evidence of possible collusion by Victoria area Conservatives to circumvent spending and contribution limits, Elections Canada must finally act and clear the air. More than ever, a complete investigation of the interactions of all the involved parties and an audit of the money trail is warranted.
If the emerging pattern of tight co-operation among quickie third parties and Conservative campaigners and their suppliers is really permissable under the law, Elections Canada should stand up and say so.
Of course, a full belated investigation will have to wait until after the May 2 election. And that investigation should occur in the context of a broader reconsideration of the role of third parties in elections. Truly independent third parties have a place in the electoral discourse, especially as an expression for those citizens who do not reflexively support one particular party, let alone being actively involved with party politics. But surely they should at least be subject to the same contribution limits as political party contributors. And the rules preventing collusion among third parties and political parties need to be more explicit and enforced more stringently.
In the mean time, it will be up to the voters of Saanich-Gulf Islands to hold the Conservatives to account and, while they’re at it, elect Elizabeth May, the one party leader in Canada who is most forthrightly addressing the issue of climate change.