The role of money in Canadian politics has been the subject of increased scrutiny in the past year. Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia has been criticized for attending private gatherings with high-level donors and for receiving a top-up of her salary as Premier from the BC Liberal Party. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has been under similar scrutiny over such cash-for-access events and fundraising quotas for ministers. This pressure has led to the introduction of amendments to Ontario law that would prevent MPPs from fundraising and ban donations from corporations and and unions.
The role and influence of money in the political process has long been antagonistic to a fully democratic electoral system. Political parties must use donations from party supporters to maintain an organization, promote various messages and run election campaigns, but it matters where that money comes from and how it is raised. If those with vast amounts of cash have greater access to government, the system loses legitimacy. It is for these reasons that events such as Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s $1,500-a-head fundraiser at the home of a prominent Halifax land developer are of such concern.
The perception that wealthy donors have overt access to federal and provincial leaders has led six provinces to ban or limit corporate and union donations to political parties. While loopholes clearly remain, the trend is toward limiting the role of money in politics through restricting donations to individuals, putting upper limits on donations and banning donations from outside the relevant jurisdiction.
One province, however, is a significant outlier in its approach to campaign financing reform. A recently released report from Progress Alberta says Saskatchewan has the worst finance regulations in the country. Saskatchewan does not restrict the amount of money that can be donated to a party and allows out-of-province corporate donations.
According to the Progress Alberta report, more than $3-million has been donated to the Saskatchewan Party from sources outside the province, with more than $2-million coming from Alberta.
One can only speculate why companies in other provinces would donate to the party of the Saskatchewan government, but it is hard to imagine how such donations contribute to fair and democratic elections.
Since coming to power in 2007, Elections Saskatchewan numbers show the Saskatchewan Party has taken in millions of dollars in corporate donations, in some cases virtually anonymously. For instance, numbered companies routinely give to the party. Between 2007 and 2015, 565509 Saskatchewan Ltd. donated more than $80,000. Saskatchewan citizens have almost no way of tracking who made these donations.
Beyond the numbered companies, Elections Saskatchewan data show further worrying trends. For instance, the Saskatchewan Party has received yearly donations from the country’s largest oil companies, including $68,108.06 from Calgary-based Cenovus Energy between 2010 and 2015. Scanning through the list of corporate donors also turns up companies such as Husky Energy Inc. and the Husky Group of Companies, whose pipeline was the source of a major oil spill in Northern Saskatchewan in early 2016. The lukewarm response from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to this environmental disaster or his vehement opposition to carbon pricing inevitably leave people questioning whether he is motivated more by the people he represents or the large corporate donors that fund his campaigns.
Perhaps most concerning of all are the large numbers of donations received from publicly funded sources. Cities and towns, registered charities, educational institutions, libraries, Crown corporations and other government agencies have given frequently to the Saskatchewan Party. For example, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina have each donated nearly $1,500 a year between 2007 and 2011 to the Saskatchewan Party. Given that organizations such as these operate on public dollars, the risk of conflict of interest or pressure (perceived or real) to donate is deeply worrying.
What should be done to solve this problem? Saskatchewan is an outlier, but it is clearly not the only province in need of serious reform.
All provinces should ban corporate and union donations, as these propagate the perception of outsized influence from large corporate or organized group interests. Third-party advertising should have clear limits during election campaigns. Provinces also need to stop out-of-province donations and contributions from public institutions and registered charities.
Setting limits for individuals’ donations to parties (preferably lower than the federal cap of $1,525) would also even out the influence among the people of the province. Also, the murky territory of internal party spending and bookkeeping is ripe for possible corruption, and should be scrutinized by provincial auditors.
Healthy democracies place individual citizens at the centre of the political process. Having transparent rules that limit outside influence keeps voters and their interests at the centre of elections and governance. Such rules may have the unintended consequence of fewer political ads, but that is something we wager most Canadians could get used to.
Charles Smith is an associate professor of political studies at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. Ryan Meili is a family physician in Saskatoon, and author of A Healthy Society: how a focus on health can revive Canadian democracy.Report Typo/Error
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