Big money returns with unlimited third-party advertising in advance of B.C. municipal elections

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      A group called Vancouverites for Affordable Housing has rented billboards to promote a candidate for mayor.

      “Fix Housing Now,” the displays proclaim.

      If that call sounds familiar, it shouldn’t be surprising, given who is being endorsed in the signs. It’s Hector Bremner, a city councillor who is running for mayor with the slogan “Let’s Fix Housing.”

      Other groups may want to follow suit and get every billboard they can in the city, or conduct other forms of advertising as well for Bremner or other candidates in the October 20 municipal election.

      They can spend all the money they want before the campaign period starts on September 22, and there is nothing to stop them.

      It’s what Pete Fry of the Green Party of Vancouver described as a loophole in the legislation on local election campaign financing passed by the provincial government last year.

      In December 2017, Fry told the Georgia Straight that the gap will allow big money to return and influence the election through third-party advertising. The same law prohibits corporate and union donations and restricts individual campaign contributions to $1,200.

      In a new interview, Fry indicated that the billboard advertising for Bremner demonstrates the “slippery slope of third-party advertising”. “Obviously, if they’re doing big Pattison billboards, those aren’t cheap,” Fry told the Straight by phone on September 4.

      The Local Elections Campaign Financing Act regulates third-party advertising only during the 28-day campaign period, which starts on September 22 and ends on election day, October 20.

      “They can spend as much money as they want right now,” Fry said. During the campaign period, third-party advertisers can spend up to $150,000.

      The law also does not put a cap on contributions to these groups. British Columbians who are either Canadian citizens or permanent residents can give as much money as they want.

      Fry, who is running for council with the Green Party, provided the Straight with images of two billboard ads promoting Bremner and his Yes Vancouver party. According to Fry, the group that identifies itself as Vancouverites for Affordable Housing is different from a now-defunct group that used the same name.

      “Who knows…who’s behind it,” Fry said about the pro-Bremner group.

      Fry recalled that the old group became what is now known as Housing Action for Local Taxpayers. A check with Elections B.C. showed that Vancouverites for Affordable Housing is not a registered third-party advertiser.

      Elections B.C. spokesperson Andrew Watson indicated that individuals and groups can now register so they can conduct advertising during the campaign period. However, Watson explained that they are not required to register outside the campaign period.

      “Third-party advertising is only regulated during the campaign period,” Watson said by phone.

      Tim Crowhurst, who is the secretary of Bremner’s Yes Vancouver party, said that his organization doesn’t know who is behind Vancouverites for Affordable Housing.

      “Your guess is as good as mine,” Crowhurst told the Straight by phone.

      According to Crowhurst, Bremner and Yes Vancouver didn’t ask for the group’s support. “Obviously, people want what Hector is saying,” he said.

      Like Fry, Crowhurst considers the local election campaign financing law passed by the B.C. NDP government to be “flawed”. “And so people are taking advantage of it,” he said.

      He also noted that Yes Vancouver is a brand-new organization that doesn’t have the same resources as the ruling Vision Vancouver and its main rival, the Non-Partisan Association.

      Referring to the billboards, Crowhurst said: “It’s great that there is support out there for our Let’s Fix Housing program, and we’ll be announcing next week a more detailed housing strategy.”

      That may yet prove what the signs claim: that Bremner and Yes Vancouver “have a real plan” for housing.