The Conservative Party and Canada's largest oil and gas lobby group stand accused of possibly "colluding" in violation of the country's elections law, according to a complaint made to a federal commissioner.
Ethics watchdog Democracy Watch said Thursday it was calling on Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté to investigate whether the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Tories broke the Canada Elections Act.
The complaint centres on the fact the lobby group and the Conservatives have both done business with an advertising firm co-founded by Hamish Marshall, who is Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign manager.
These connections, along with revelations about three events this past spring involving Scheer and oil industry executives, “point to a relationship of collaboration and support” that would give Côté “reasonable grounds to investigate,” the complaint reads.
“Don’t just call them up and say, ‘Hey, are you guys colluding?’” Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher urged the commissioner in an Oct. 10 interview.
“There’s enough there, I think, for (Côté) to go to court and try to get a subpoena.”
As part of its evidence to the commissioner, Democracy Watch cited a National Observer story that a member of the CAPP board of governors lobbied Scheer during a gala dinner event sponsored by one of CAPP’s member companies, Imperial Oil.
Oil lobby paid ad agency with Tory ties
CAPP registered with Elections Canada as a third-party advertiser this year, allowing it to run political ads. The lobby group made four payments totalling more than $15,000 to the ad agency Marshall co-founded, One Persuasion Inc., according to a financial return filed with Elections Canada.
One Persuasion also did work for the Conservatives, the company confirmed to the Globe and Mail, which first reported on the contracts Wednesday.
Recent changes to the Canada Elections Act ban third parties and political parties acting “in collusion with each other,” including through information-sharing, in order to “influence” the third party in its partisan campaign activities, ads or election surveys.
Michelle Laliberté, communications manager in Côté’s office, said her office reviews every complaint it receives to determine if they fall within the commissioner’s mandate. “The commissioner does not, however, disclose whether he will conduct an investigation into a particular matter,” she wrote in an email.
CAPP told the Globe and Mail the association is "fully compliant with the Canada Elections Act at all times.” One Persuasion partner Dan Robertson told the newspaper that Marshall took a leave of absence from the agency in June, that the ad work done for CAPP took place after his departure and that there had been “no communications” between Marshall and the firm concerning any “business activities or relationships.”
On Thursday, Scheer rejected a question from media that the ad work runs afoul of the collusion ban, claiming instead “a ruling, a decision by Elections Canada,” had said vendors can have contracts with two advertisers.
Elections Canada contradicted that claim in a response to the Globe and Mail, saying it did not, in fact, issue “any kind of official ruling or decision,” but simply provided guidance.
The Conservative Party's associate director of media relations, Simon Jefferies, told National Observer he would examine the complaint but could not provide comment before publication.
A spokesperson for CAPP's media team answered the phone but could not provide comment to National Observer before publication. CAPP did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Marshall did not return an emailed request for comment to his One Persuasion address. Robertson did not return phone and emailed requests for comment.
Three events, three hotels
Democracy Watch said three events in particular provided supporting evidence for an investigation. The events took place in April, May and June of this year, and each one occurred at a hotel.
On April 11, Scheer gave a keynote speech at a private, daylong meeting at the Azuridge Estate Hotel in Alberta, attended by oil executives and CAPP’s president. At that event, Marshall also spoke on a panel about “rallying the base." CAPP disputed that the event was related to the election.
On May 15, Imperial Oil CEO Rich Kruger had a conversation with Scheer at the annual Politics and the Pen dinner at the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa. The company, which sponsored the dinner, later filed a lobbying report for that date related to the dinner. (Kruger, who is still listed as a member of CAPP’s board of governors, is retiring from his post at the end of December.)
On June 4, Scheer attended a fundraising event at the Westin Hotel in Calgary, organized by energy-firm executives. The Conservative party’s fundraising report for that event, where Scheer spoke, lists some industry representatives involved in the April meeting, Democracy Watch said. The party told the Globe and Mail the event was not a fundraiser and open to non-donors.
The anti-collusion requirement was included in changes the Trudeau government made to the elections law under Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act, most of which took effect on June 13.
One Persuasion's advertising work for the Tories is being done during the campaign, the firm told the Globe and Mail, and some of CAPP's financial return indicates activity involving One Persuasion that occurred after the campaign had started.
Complaint comes as pollution plan under scrutiny
Scheer unveiled his plan to fight climate change on June 19. It contained an approach similar to actions recommended by CAPP, such as prioritizing investments in technology and focusing on oil and gas exports, but did not project the amount by which each proposal would lower Canada’s carbon pollution.
Over the summer Scheer also promised to scrap the government's proposed clean fuel standard that would dramatically cut pollution from transportation, something Kruger has said would cut into industry profits.
The oil and gas sector is the largest contributor to Canada's carbon pollution, according to the most recent federal estimates, contributing over a quarter of all emissions, or 27 per cent.
Globally, just 20 companies are responsible for over one-third of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane since 1965, the result of ceaseless exploitation of coal, oil and gas.
Pollution from fossil fuels in Canada continues to grow, with the oilsands sector alone responsible for more carbon pollution than all of B.C. or Quebec in 2017, the federal government told the United Nations in April this year.
If the oil lobby's wish list were fully implemented by lawmakers, according to an Environmental Defence study released on Monday, carbon emissions from the energy sector would rise by 60 per cent.
Canada is heating up at double the average rate of the planet, according to peer-reviewed research from government scientists and academics, and carbon pollution must be reduced to "near-zero" to limit the risk to Canadians of extreme heat waves, wildfires, floods and declining freshwater.
'Examine all the communications'
Democracy Watch’s position is that Côté does not need to find “proof” CAPP specifically undertook an activity or put out an ad or survey “because” of information-sharing with the Conservatives. The complaint argues that evidence showing information was shared in order to “influence” the third party would be sufficient.
The organization asked Côté to use his powers under the elections law to “examine all the communications between everyone at One Persuasion Inc. and the (Conservative party) and the CAPP.”
“You can’t really investigate unless you’ve got all the emails, and (personal ID numbers) and other communications between the ad firm and the two clients, and between CAPP and the CPC,” Conacher said.