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A socially conservative, off-Island lobby organization may play an outsized role in this weekend’s Progressive Conservative party leadership convention.
A representative of the Toronto-based pro-life Campaign Life Coalition says that it has “many hundreds” of people in P.E.I. who have signed up as members to vote in the PC leadership race. The group has endorsed leadership candidate Kevin Arsenault and is urging its members to select Arsenault as their first choice on the ballot.
Jack Fonseca, director of political operations for the coalition, said the group has been reaching out to its members through an “aggressive live-calling campaign,” through mail-outs and through targeted Facebook advertising.
Fonseca says the group played a key role in last year’s Ontario PC leadership race.
Fonseca said the group signed up 9,000 members during this race. These members were asked to rank Tanya Granic Allen as their first choice and Doug Ford as their second.
Most of Allen’s support went to Ford after she was eliminated in the first ballot, which played a key role in his leadership win.
"It's very clear from the numbers he would not have won without our support," Fonseca said.
In a letter mailed to CLC members in P.E.I. in January, the group described Arsenault as a “longtime advocate for preborn human rights.”
“As premier, he could defund medically unnecessary abortions. He could protect P.E.I. school children from transgender ideology,” the letter read.
Arsenault’s website states that, were he to become premier, he would re-allocate money “currently used to fund abortions which are not medically-necessary” to fund other programs to support to women “who feel they have no ‘choice’ but to have an abortion due to the difficult circumstances they may be facing in their lives.”
None of the other four PC leadership candidates favour curtailment of access to abortion on P.E.I., although Driscoll has stated he is pro-life.
"The election expenses act doesn't give us any authority or ability to regulate around leadership conventions. It doesn't talk about them at all, so they sort of fall outside of the scope."
-Tim Garrity, Elections P.E.I.
Few regulations against lobbying
According to Elections P.E.I. chief electoral officer Tim Garrity, the Elections Expenses Act has few regulations limiting the influence of outside lobby groups in party leadership races. The act prohibits non-Island residents from making political contributions to registered candidates of a party and requires that the expenses incurred from mail-outs or Facebook ads promoting these candidates be declared as campaign contributions.
But party leadership candidates are not considered to be registered candidates under the act, according to Garrity.
"The election expenses act doesn't give us any authority or ability to regulate around leadership conventions. It doesn't talk about them at all, so they sort of fall outside of the scope," Garrity said.
In an email to The Guardian, PC leadership committee spokesman Michael Drake said PC rules governing the leadership campaign require candidates to follow fundraising rules of the Elections Expenses Act.
But the email seemed to indicate that lobby group activities were a grey area in terms of party rules.
“Our leadership convention rules reflect this understanding; our rules did not address or contemplate third-party mailouts or advertising,” Drake said in the email.
The Guardian reached out to Kevin Arsenault for comment.
Ryan Owens, a spokesperson for Arsenault’s campaign, stated his campaign planned to disclose all campaign donations but did not commit to asking the Campaign Life Coalition to disclose their PC-leadership related expenses.
“We haven’t discussed that yet,” Owens said.