Premier Doug Ford’s government is proposing sweeping changes to Ontario’s election rules, including doubling political donations and clamping down on “collusion” by third-party advertisers.
But the Progressive Conservative government is backing down on Mr. Ford’s previous pledge to put an end to millions of dollars in per-vote subsidies to political parties, instead extending them until 2024 because of “the financial impact of COVID-19.”
The changes, proposed in a bill introduced on Thursday by Attorney-General Doug Downey, come a little more than a year before the next Ontario election, scheduled for June 2, 2022. The 19 amendments also include an extension of advance voting days during an election, which the government said will reduce the numbers of people at polling stations during the COVID-19 era.
Mr. Downey said in an interview the goal of the bill is to make it “easier and safer” for people to vote. The government is extending the per-vote subsidy until the end of 2024 at the 2018 rate, which amounts to about $2.52 per vote.
Mr. Downey said the decision to extend the subsidy – which Mr. Ford previously likened to taxpayer-funded political “welfare” – was to ensure all parties have enough resources in the next election.
“COVID came along, and we want to make sure that we have good, vigorous debate in Ontario,” he said. “It’s a matter of fairness.”
The subsidy is based on how many votes a political party gets in any given election. Based on votes in the 2018 election, the PC party would receive more than $5.9-million, the NDP would get $4.9-million, the Liberals $2.8-million and the Green Party around $671,000.
The legislation, called the Protecting Ontario Elections Act, would also increase donation limits to constituency associations, campaigns and political parties from $1,650 to $3,300 a year. But the total limit could be as high as $9,900, because people can donate to all three in one year.
The bill also sets out to extend spending limits on third-party groups, such as unions and interest groups, including the pro-conservative Ontario Proud and left-leaning Working Families Ontario. The spending limit of $637,200 would be extended from six months before an election to a year.
The government will also “introduce a definition of collusion to help protect Ontario’s elections from outside influence and interference.”
Mr. Downey said the “collusion” rules are not intended to control any group’s message, but to go after resource-sharing and the use of foreign funds.
“Ontario is an outlier in this … We experience millions of dollars in third-party advertising. No other province does that; they’re in the thousands,” he said.
NDP ethics critic Taras Natyshak called the government’s planned changes “a massive cash grab, and an obvious attempt to silence [Mr. Ford’s] critics,” including community groups.
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said he’s supportive of the per-vote subsidy – even though it most benefits Progressive Conservatives – but is concerned about big money in Ontario politics.
“I’m real worried that the increase in donation limits starts to reopen the door to pay-to-play politics,” he said.
The Liberals said they were reviewing the bill.
Following outcry over high-priced political fundraisers, the previous Liberal government banned corporate and union donations in 2016, and introduced the per-vote subsidy.
Other changes in the bill include a pledge to “level the playing field” for independent candidates and MPPs by allowing them to raise money outside of election writ periods and keep surpluses from their campaigns. It also proposes to establish new rules set by the Legislative Assembly for MPPs’ social media usage.
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