Poilievre is fundraising and advertising aggressively before next election call and limits set in

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With weekly hauls seeking donations of up to $1,725 and that kind of cash coming in, Pierre Poilievre will able to keep spending without being subject to the limits on advertising that kick in once an election is called.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 15, 2024.

OTTAWA—Pre-budget fever has returned the Liberals to the front pages for the first time in months.

The prime minister and his front bench have been travelling across the country offering glimpses of what kind of budget the minister of finance will deliver this week.

Liberal themes are broad and deep. The government wants to send a message of real product differentiation.

Unlike the Conservative leader, the Liberals will be reaching out to help those in need—from school lunches for kids, to rental rights for young Canadians who are struggling.

Recent messaging has been strong. But it remains to be seen whether it is too little, too late.

Will the prime minister be able to continue this cross-country blitz once the budget has been tabled?

Or will the Pierre Poilievre bandwagon keep gaining popularity as it rolls along from riding to riding?

The Liberals promised back in 2015 that they would not do government advertising to promote government programs and initiatives.

That promise was a reaction to the multi-million-dollar action plan delivered by former prime minister Stephen Harper, which included signage in the woods to reinforce support with the hunting community.

Trudeau has stayed true to that promise. And it has cost him dearly. In the absence of government messaging, Poilievre has raised and spent millions of dollars to shape his image and promote his messaging in all media.

The Conservative spending on advertising, in social media, and on so-called legacy media has managed to shape an image of the Conservative leader that is quite different from one year ago.

Sans glasses, and sporting muscle T-shirts, with an articulate spouse on his arm, Poilievre is working hard to soften the obvious hard edges.

He is still reaching out to the anti-vaccine and anti-abortion movements, but is making sure that is not the message dominating the mainstream.

Poilievre is fundraising aggressively, as well, with weekly hauls seeking donations of up to $1,725. With that kind of cash coming in, he will able to continue to spend in the lead-up to the election without being subject to the limitations on advertising that kick in once an election is called.

The shape-shifting prompted by the Conservative advertising campaign begs the question.

According to the Canada Elections Act, each party is subject to an annual advertising limit. The last reported annual limit was $2,046,800 in 2019 available to each party.

However, the law states that messages posted for free on social media do not constitute partisan advertising.

That means that a 15-minute video released on X does not need to be included in pre-election, reportable advertising expenses.

As the production costs for most social media videos can be hefty, the cost for the creation of social media videos and messaging should be considered in each party’s partisan advertising bill.

If social media costs were factored in, it would not be long before the aggressive Poilievre advertising campaign would exceed the annual limit.

The same law states that advertising is not considered partisan if it “promotes or opposes a political entity only by taking a position on an issue with which the entity is associated.” By that definition, an “Axe the Tax” advertising campaign would not be considered partisan.

The onslaught of political advertising by the Poilievre team is producing the desired results.

But perhaps it is also time to take a look at just what constitutes partisan advertising. Tighter limits should be placed on pre-election advertising in the same way that parties are limited once the election is called.

Under current rules, the governing Liberals should start sending out their own political messaging. By leaving the door open to the official opposition, the Liberals have missed an opportunity to remind voters of the differences between the two parties.

Instead, the messaging has focussed on all the negatives of the prime minister, with Poilievre blaming him for everything from global inflation to housing shortages to grocery prices.

Even provincial issuance of student visas for post-secondary education is now the federal government’s fault.

And with no response from the Liberals in the paid media domain, as they say in French, “les absents ont toujours tort”.

The absentees are always wrong.

Pre-election advertising rules governing social media are not about to change any time soon.

So if the Liberals intend to have even a fighting chance in the next election, they have to start fighting on the legacy and social media networks.

It is their only hope to turn the train wreck around.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.