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Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at the daily briefing in Toronto on Feb. 8, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

There is a tension at the heart of campaign finance law that never goes away. The rules are designed to limit the influence of money in politics. But the rules are set by politicians. Who are always ravenous for money.

We are seeing this dynamic play out once again in Ontario. No sooner had the outgoing Liberal government, after a series of “cash for access” scandals, tightened the rules on political contributions than the incoming Conservative government began to loosen them.

To be sure, the ban on corporate and union donations remained illegal (sort of – see below). But the limits on individual contributions, previously set at $3,600 per party a year – $1,200 to the party, $1,200 to its constituency associations and $1,200 (in an election year) to its candidates – were raised to $4,800.

The government now proposes to go much further, via a package of amendments to the province’s election law. Not only are the individual contribution limits to be doubled, but the subsidy from public funds, another Liberal-era reform that Doug Ford had vowed to abolish, is instead to be expanded: from 55 cents per vote obtained in the previous election to 63 cents.

And while the government claims it is tightening the rules on “third-party” advocacy groups – mostly unions and corporations under assumed names – they will still be permitted to spend more than $600,000. Each.

Altogether it means there will be more money in play during Ontario’s next election, not less. This is not progress.

What would serious campaign finance reform look like? Begin by asking a few basic questions. First, why do any of the parties need to spend any money? Answer: because the other parties do, mostly. The actual cost of distributing your platform and “getting your message out” is relatively minor, especially in the age of the internet.

The rest – all those attack ads, all those push-polls, all those robocalls, all those millions that every party spends to mislead the public and pollute the conversation in every election – is more or less wasted, cancelled out by the similar efforts of their competitors. So long as you limited all of the parties in the same way, none of them would miss it. Certainly the public wouldn’t. Quebec limits contributions to $100 a person, and does not seem to suffer a shortage of politics.

Second, what are elections? Are they contests between the parties? No: They are contests between citizens. The parties are merely vehicles for the individuals of which they are composed. The point of campaign finance laws, then, should be to give every citizen roughly equal voice in the debates leading up to an election, for the same reason that every voter gets one ballot.

A citizen-based system of campaign finance means, obviously, that no other sources of finance are allowed. Individuals donate their own money, of their own free will, rather than unions or corporations – or governments (no more public subsidy, or juicy tax credits) – donating on their behalf. But it also means that it is a person’s total contributions each year, to all parties, candidates or other political actors, that should be regulated, rather than any single contribution.

Why, after all, do we limit contributions? To prevent the rich from exercising undue political influence; to achieve a rough equality between individuals, regardless of income. If everyone had the same income, there would be no need to regulate contributions, beyond disclosure. A global annual ceiling on each person’s political contributions achieves much the same effect. Whereas simply limiting each contribution leaves it open to those with the means to make multiple contributions, and thus to multiply their influence.

Limiting party spending is even worse, from the standpoint of equality, especially in the absence of limits on contributions. Suppose each party is limited to spending no more than $100,000. Now suppose you have two parties: one with a thousand members, each contributing $100; the other with a hundred members, each giving $1,000. If the same $100,000 spending limit applies to each, the second party’s supporters will each, individually, have 10 times as much “voice” as their counterparts in the first.

Neither contribution nor spending limits will work, moreover, in the presence of third parties. What use is served by banning corporations or unions from donating to political parties, as some provinces have done, if they can spend many times what they had previously contributed supporting (or opposing) a party on their own, or through political action committees? What use is limiting spending by any one of these organizations, if they can just set up another? And another?

On the other hand, banning third-party campaigns outright, or limiting them, as some have advocated, to spending some fraction of what the parties spend, seems incompatible with freedom of speech. What if none of the parties is addressing a particular issue satisfactorily? Shouldn’t groups of like-minded citizens be able to advertise their concerns at election time, without the parties’ say-so?

There’s a third option, however. Rather than discriminate in favour of third parties or against them, why not put them on the same footing as the political parties? Each is simply a different means through which an individual might choose to project their voice into the political arena, and it is not for others to judge which is to be preferred.

How would that fit with the system of annual personal contribution limits described above? Simple: make contributions to political advocacy groups count toward each person’s annual limit. And restrict third-party groups, so far as they spend money supporting or opposing a party or candidate, to spending only such funds as they can raise from individuals in this way. The conflict between parties and third-party groups would thus be self-regulating. The more you contributed to one, the less you’d have left to contribute to another.

I can’t think of a better way to balance a concern for the integrity of political campaigns with a general preference for free speech. No spending limits. No discrimination between different types of political actors. Just a global annual personal contribution limit. How much should it be? Alberta has one (though it doesn’t include third parties). It’s set at around $4,200, but it could be lower, perhaps even a lot lower. How about an even $1,000?

Maybe that means we spend less on political campaigns. Maybe a lot of people who are currently making their living as strategists and political consultants have to find honest work. I’m willing to take that chance.

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