Since Kathleen Wynne became Premier last winter, her Liberals have occasionally debated behind the scenes whether to change Ontario’s campaign-finance rules.
One might have thought last week’s controversy around legislation being passed for the sole purpose of helping the construction company EllisDon, a generous contributor to both the Liberals and the opposition Progressive Conservatives, would have tipped the balance in favour of those arguing for new limits on political donations.
Even now, however, the other side still seems to be triumphing. An issue that might appeal to Ms. Wynne’s sensibilities as a former grassroots activist, and to her need for policy issues that define her as a leader and differentiate her from her predecessor, is just considered more trouble than it’s worth.
That’s understandable, but it’s also irksome. Because at a time when cynicism about politics and politicians is already running high, stories like the one last week only stand to add to it.
The Tories might have had only the best of intentions in proposing a bill freeing EllisDon from a 55-year-old agreement that requires it to hire only union workers, and so too might the Liberals in agreeing to go along with it. Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton, who brought forward the legislation, has argued that the existing arrangement places the domestic company at a disadvantage next to foreign competitors, and that may well be reason enough to help put an end to it.
But if that was indeed the motivation, then none of the people involved – the Liberals, the Tories, EllisDon – were done any favours by the province’s campaign-financing practices. Never mind that Mr. McNaughton’s renegade caucus colleague Randy Hillier outright alleged that his party pushed the bill to try to wrest fundraising dollars away from the Liberals; anyone who notices that EllisDon, companies connected to it and its CEO combined to give the Liberals more than $125,000 last year, and the Tories more than $32,000, will be liable to have suspicions.
If this had been at the federal level, there would be no such issue: Individuals can give no more than $2,400 annually to a national party and any of its local associations or candidates, and corporations and unions are prohibited from giving at all.
In Ontario, the limit is $15,500, and double that in election years. That’s not just restricted to individuals, and as EllisDon has demonstrated, it’s possible to use various divisions or subsidiaries to up the cumulative total significantly. There are also several loopholes, such as the lack of restrictions during leadership campaigns, that can allow donors to pile even more on top of that.
It should be noted that Ontario is not unique among provinces in its lax campaign-finance controls, and at worst is probably somewhere around the middle of the pack. While Quebec has brought in extremely low limits, and Manitoba allows only individual contributions up to $3,000 per party per year, several provinces – including British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador – have no caps at all.
Other politicians undoubtedly noticed that former prime minister Jean Chrétien got little political credit for ushering in a tougher campaign-finance regime (subsequently toughened further under Stephen Harper). And Liberals such as Ms. Wynne are surely cognizant of what happened to their federal cousins, who discovered that centrists can have a much tougher time than their opponents attracting the small individual donations that became the lifeblood of the system.
But there is another lesson to draw from Mr. Chrétien, too. His clampdown only happened after his government had been mired in ethics controversies, some of which might have been avoided with tougher rules to begin with. And to use a more extreme example, Quebec’s new fundraising regime was imposed as a response to that province’s corruption crisis.
Maybe it will take clear-cut scandal, rather than just an eyebrow-raiser like the EllisDon story, to prompt changes in Ontario. In the meanwhile, fairly or not, politicians and their benefactors will continue to get caught in the murk.