Ontario Proud, the largest digital political advocacy group in the country — and self-described anti-Liberal advocacy group — seems to have taken an interest in the City of Kawartha Lakes’ election.
The Lindsay Advocate has confirmed with Joel Watts, deputy returning officer of the City of Kawartha Lakes that Ontario Proud is not registered as a third party advertiser in this election. The only registered third party advertiser is Bill Denby, who seems to take credit for the ad in the comments section of the second CKL-related video posted so far this election.
When one local citizen questions in the comments thread why Ontario Proud is trying to influence our election, Denby replies “the guy that paid for this is getting his monies (sic) worth!!!” Later, in the thread, after another citizen mentions that they are not a registered Third Party Advertiser, Denby replies “Yes they are, I am Registered Third Party Advertiser in Kawartha Lakes Municipal Election, allows me to run ads, put up signs, run ads on facebook, hold meeting to inform the Voters, what has been going on in City Hall, under Letham and GANG!!”
There might be one problem with that impeccable logic though.
It is true that Denby is a registered third party advertiser for this election. Although some of Denby’s signs have been taken down by Municipal Enforcement (ME) — presumably for violation of the City’s sign Bylaw — those gorgeous signs at Victoria and Kent Streets are, in fact, legal.
(The ME were unable to respond to questions posed yesterday by the Advocate.)
The problem is that, according to the 2018 Guide for Third Party Advertisers, “A third party advertiser must provide the following information on all of its advertisements, signs and other materials: the legal name of the registered third party (if the third party is a corporation or trade union, the name of the corporation or trade union must appear, not the name of the representative who filed the registration); the municipality where the third party is registered; and a telephone number, mailing address or email address where the third party can be contacted.”
These videos are clearly branded “Ontario Proud” and not “Bill Denby.”
Ontario Proud is a registered third party advertiser in the Toronto municipal election. Their Toronto ads are also more overtly against specific candidates, the rules for which are clearly outlined in the guide.
The CKL ads, however, seem to fall into a grey area of the guide. The guide says that “advertising about an issue, rather than a candidate or a “yes” or “no” answer to a question on the ballot is not considered third party advertising.” Their issue in the CKL ads seem to be “our taxes are too high!.” However, any reasonable person viewing those ads would conclude that they are encouraging people to vote against certain incumbents running for re-election. The latter position would seem require third party registration under the guide.
Denby himself sums up the key message of the ad when he comments in the thread that he is allowed, under the Guide, “to inform the Voters, what has been going on in City Hall, under Letham and GANG!! Do 170 page Report on Letham and Gang and then do a TEST to see who is HONEST! Letham FAILED the Test and Breached the Rules of the MUNICIPAL ACT. Test do not Lie, People do! Your Candidate FAILED!! Gord James & Peter Weygang Passed ! Both are Honest and followed the Municipal Act Rules to the Letter and handed the 170 Page Report to the City Clerk to deal with!!”
The report that Denby is referring to is the anonymously prepared ‘report’ on Mayor Andy Letham that the Advocate has determined lacks any substance. We also postulated that this report itself was not in compliance with the new election law.
Personally, I do not find the simplistic memes of advocacy groups like Ontario Proud helpful in discussing policy. They generally inflame opinions and lead to division instead of debate. To be clear, there are similar, albeit smaller, meme factories on the political ‘left’ (North 99, Press Progress.) Neither of those two organizations have engaged in the City of Kawartha Lakes election.
I also fear for the polarizing effect that these memes have. Such polarization is happening around the world, and no one seems to be better for it. And while a meme or short video may easily suggest to a voter that they should be able to get ‘lower taxes AND better services,’ the reality is that whether you are running a municipality or are just trying to be an informed voter, making an informed decision takes a lot more work.
Ontario Proud is not a stupid organization. Founded by Jeff Ballingall, an ex-Conservative staffer who was briefly a journalist for the Sun News Network, the registered not-for-profit has quickly grown to be the most important political advocacy group in the country (as measured by several metrics including Facebook impressions.) As the Advocate has reported in the past, for an organization that champions free-speech so much, they are very litigious and have sued many detractors. I expect to be contacted by them for even thinking negatively about them. (Efforts to contact them were unsuccessful.)
What is clear is that Ontario Proud is overtly partisan. Election law in Ontario prevents federal or provincial parties from participating in municipal politics. I think that is a good thing: it keeps local elections a discussion and debate between neighbours.
Introducing the divisive and distracting noise of Ontario Proud (or any other partisan group of any stripe) allows provincial and federal politics to enter our election through the back door. It muddies the waters, breaks the spirit — if not the letter of — the third party advertising rules, and ultimately distracts us from the hard work of governing ourselves.