Manitoba liberals and New Democrats say a series of attack ads launched by a Regina-based political action committee with ties to Saskatchewan’s conservatives amount to interference in the province’s upcoming election.
Both sides accuse Manitoba Progressive Conservatives of colluding with the extra-provincial group, while the NDP has filed two complaints with Elections Manitoba over what it claims are violations of third-party advertising rules.
The Canada Growth Council, a nonprofit political action committee formed in 2019 to campaign against federal Liberal candidates, has removed billboards in Winnipeg featuring Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Can’t afford these two? Imagine adding Kinew,” the billboard ad reads.
The Canada Growth Council is also behind a massive messaging campaign that sent images of attack ads and text messages to Manitoba’s phone numbers this week.
The ads compare Kinew’s policies to those of Singh and Trudeau, claiming that Kinew would distribute “free heroin and hard drugs for criminals” if elected Prime Minister of Manitoba on Oct. 3 and also fire the police.
The text messages refer to Kinew as “a convicted criminal” and state that the NDP leader is “in an alliance” with Singh and Trudeau.
“We can’t afford four years of their wacky policies that will lead to more crime, higher taxes and the NDP driving our economy to the ground… just like last time!” read the text messages. “We cannot trust Wab, Justin and Jagmeet to run our province.”
Adrien Sala, the NDP MLA for St. James, called the ads disgusting and accused Manitoba’s PCs of collaborating with the Canada Growth Council.
Current and former directors of the political action committee include former Saskatchewan Party officials, according to company records.
“Manitobans want free, open and fair elections,” Sala said in an interview Thursday.
“Instead, we see this big money organization, an outside party outside the province, spending thousands and thousands of dollars on billboards and advertisements and appear to be doing so illegally in conjunction with the (Progressive) Conservative Party of Manitoba.”
Breaking: contacted the Canada Growth Council at the number provided in the text message, but did not hear back. Breaking: also left messages for corporate director Dale Richardson, a former communications director for the Saskatchewan party, via phone, email and Twitter direct message.
Neither Manitoba’s PC caucus nor the party itself is involved with the Canada Growth Council, PC caucus spokesperson Cameron Eason said in a statement.
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said she too has no knowledge of any interaction between the PCs and the Canada Growth Council.
Stefanson said she received the text message but deleted it.
“I get so many messages and it is what it is. I somehow didn’t look into it,” she said, adding that any entity can engage in free speech.
Under Manitoba’s Election Financing Act, there are rules for third-party advertising this close to an election. Beginning June 7, third-party advertisers spending more than $2,500 were required to register with Elections Manitoba, communications director Mike Ambrose said in an interview.
The Canada Growth Council’s failure to do so constitutes a violation of that rule, NDP Secretary Tim Johnson charged in a letter to Elections Commissioner Bill Bowles.
“Elections should be free, open and fair in our province. But an out-of-province right-wing group funded by undisclosed donors — individuals and possibly companies, both in Canada and possibly abroad — is spending thousands of dollars to illegally intervene .” in Manitoba elections in the statutory pre-election period,” Johnson wrote in the letter.
In a separate letter of complaint, Johnson alleged that the PCs are cooperating with the Canada Growth Council in violation of another part of Manitoba’s Election Financing Act. Johnson makes that claim based on the fact that the Saskatchewan entity’s website once belonged to the federal Conservative Party and former Conservative MP Candice Bergen is working Manitoba’s re-election campaign.
Sala repeated that claim, but failed to provide any evidence that the PCs and the Canada Growth Council are working together.
Russian dolls, but with front groups
Liberal leader Dougald Lamont, who first raised concerns about the Canada Growth Council during question time at the Manitoba legislature on May 8, said it is highly unlikely that there is no relationship between Manitoba’s conservatives and their counterparts in Saskatchewan.
“How is it that an organization called the Canadian Growth Council in Saskatchewan has spent 20 years of opposition research on Manitoba NDP MLAs and has the same talking points as the PCs?” Lamont asked in an interview.
“You know those Russian dolls where you take the lid off? That’s basically it, but with conservative front groups.”
Royce Koop, a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said sending attack ads to a third party can be an effective strategy for a political party, especially since negative campaigns always carry risks.
“There is no real danger of it hurting the prime minister if your campaign can demonstrate that there is distance between them and the people who carry out the attacks,” Koop said in an interview.