The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers intervened in 13 “Liberal swing ridings” in last month’s provincial election in Ontario, buying billboards in “high visibility locations” and sending pro-pipeline mailers to 400,000 households, an investigation by National Observer, the Toronto Star, and Global News revealed last week.
The campaign is being interpreted as a warning shot at Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party ahead of the federal election next year, and an unprecedented intrusion that may have violated Ontario electoral laws governing third-party advertising.
“The details of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ campaign appear in a flyer distributed at a government-sponsored summit in Vaughan, near Toronto, where the association had a booth,” the three news outlets report. The “ground campaign” ran from April 8 to May 29, the date Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal cabinet’s decision to purchase and complete the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Ontarians went to the polls June 7 and elected a Progressive Conservative majority government.
“CAPP’s campaign included 13 rallies across the country, billboards, a huge social media push, and mailing hundreds of thousands of letters warning the public about their struggle to compete and gain access to new oil and gas markets,” Observer reports. “The Calgary-based group also sent 24,000 letters to ‘key decision-makers’, including B.C. Premier John Horgan, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, according to the leaked CAPP document.”
Critics said the intervention merits review by Elections Ontario.
“I’ve never seen the oil industry lobby like this before,” said Greenpeace Canada Senior Energy Strategist Keith Stewart. “What is absolutely unprecedented, as far as I know, is deliberately targeting swing ridings in order to impact the makeup of the government.”
The advertising “was run under the umbrella of Canada’s Energy Citizens, a group created and managed by CAPP to engage with Canadians and drive public support for oilpatch-friendly policies,” the news investigation found. “According to the province’s electoral rules, a third party—such as corporations, partnerships, businesses, and associations—that spends more than $500 in the six months before a fixed date general election on political advertising of some kind must register with Elections Ontario.” But “a spokesperson for Elections Ontario confirmed CAPP was not a registered third party during the election period.”
A CAPP spokesperson claimed the campaign had nothing to do with the high-stakes provincial election that happened to be going on while the federal decision on Trans Mountain was pending.
“The timing of the advertising campaign aligned with the federal decision on a federally-regulated pipeline deemed in the national interest, targeting federal Members of Parliament—not candidates of the Ontario election,” said Media Relations Manager Chelsie Klassen. CAPP added in a written statement that “pipelines were not identified as a priority for any of the Ontario election candidates, further separating the advertising campaign from the election.”
But Observer, the Star, and Global News spoke to two democracy advocates who didn’t see it that way.
“With this campaign, they’re targeting both the federal Liberals and provincial Liberals,” said Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher. “They would want Ford in there because they know he would be pushing pipeline instead of windmill.”
“To an outsider, it certainly looks like the campaign was designed to coordinate with the Ontario election campaign,” agreed former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft, author of Oil’s Deep State, a review of fossil interests’ capture of the Alberta and federal governments.
While federal politicians may have been CAPP’s target, “I think provincial officials were icing on the cake,” said Greenpeace’s Stewart. But ultimately, the fossil industry “is flexing their political muscle. The minute you start targeting swing ridings, you’re trying to influence who will be in office.”