Ontario currently has no limits on third-party advertising.
This means unions, corporations and wealthy individuals can pour as much money as they want into ads promoting their causes, attacking politicians they do not like and trying to sway voters at election time.
Here is who has taken advantage.
It's all about the unions
In the three general elections since 2007, the first in which third-party advertisers had to report their spending to Elections Ontario, unions, corporations and advocacy groups spent a total of $16.4-million.
Of that, $15.4-million – or 94 per cent – was spent by unions.
Corporate spending on third-party ads has been modest by comparison, accounting for $641,000. Spending by other advocacy groups was $409,000.
These figures do not include spending outside the official campaign period, which is not subject to disclosure.
The biggest-spending third-party advertiser was Working Families, a union umbrella group that has run attack ads against the Progressive Conservatives in every general election since 2003.
Working Families poured more than $4.6-million into the three most recent elections: A little over $1-million in each of the 2007 and 2011 campaigns, and $2.5-million in 2014.
The largest contributor to Working Families was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which put up $1.2-million, divided among several locals. More than half that money came from Local 353, which covers Toronto and the surrounding area.
Other private-sector unions that contributed included the Ontario Pipe Trades Council ($650,000); Unifor and one of its predecessors, the Canadian Auto Workers ($550,000); United Food and Commercial Workers ($400,000); the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades ($314,744.44); the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 793 ($600,000); the Ontario Sheet Metal and Roofers' Conference ($145,000) and the United Association ($100,000.)
Several public-sector unions – most notably teachers' associations – also helped fund Working Families: The Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association gave $500,000, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation gave $450,000 and the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario contributed $350,000.
Other donations came from the Ontario Nurses' Association ($200,000), the Ontario Professional Firefighters' Association ($100,000), and the Society of Energy Professionals ($130,000.)
Another union group emerges
Project Ontario, another union umbrella organization, cropped up in the 2014 campaign. It was funded by the United Steelworkers ($250,000), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation ($250,000) and Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Toronto Transit Commission employees ($50,000). It spent $447,560.73 on ads.
While Working Families hired political consultants who also worked for the Liberals, Project Ontario was partly run by an NDP strategist and targeted its ads at Southwestern Ontario, where the New Democrats were hoping to make gains.
The individual unions that spent the most money in the past three elections were the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, at more than $4.5-million, and the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which spent $4.3-million.
Other unions that spent big included the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation ($1.1-million), the Ontario Nurses' Association ($687,155.44), the Canadian Union of Public Employees ($484,574.11, from several locals) and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union ($349,925.43.)
The non-union spenders
The largest corporate spender in 2014 was the Ontario Plasma Coalition, a group set up by Exapharma Inc. The Toronto company wanted to offer payment for blood donations, but the Liberals banned the practice in 2014. The company spent $200,000 on advertisements targeting the Liberals and decrying the decision.
Another group, Vaughan Health Campus of Care, spent $84,000 advocating for a hospital in the Toronto suburb. The group did not disclose any donors in its Elections Ontario filings, but its website shows supportive messages from local movers and shakers, including former federal Conservative MP Julian Fantino and developer Michael DeGasperis.
An umbrella group of construction companies called Stop the Trades Tax spent $82,000. The group's wants the government to abolish a tax on contractors and skilled tradespeople that funds the Ontario College of Trades, a government-sanctioned union-run body that handles training and regulation for the trades. The group was funded by anti-union construction groups that included the Progressive Contractors' Association of Canada and the Merit Openshop Contractors Association of Ontario.
The times are changing
The Wynne government is proposing to limit third-party advertising as part of a package of campaign finance reforms, Bill 201. If the legislation passes, corporations, unions or wealthy individuals would be allowed to spend no more than $100,000 during an election campaign period and $600,000 in the six months before.
This would start to bring Ontario in line with other jurisdictions: Federal third-party advertisers are allowed to spend no more than $205,800 during an election period. In British Columbia, third-party spending is capped at $150,000 in an election campaign.
Ontario's chief electoral officer Greg Essensa has called for the bill to go further, and also ban political staffers and partisan strategists from working on third-party advertising campaigns.
The legislation is in front of a legislative committee, which is holding hearings across the province. It is expected to be returned to the legislature in the fall for further debate, and reach a final vote before the end of the year.