We now take you back to the heady days of 2016, when it seemed for a brief, shining moment that an era of shameless political fundraising in Canada was on the wane.
In May of that year, Kathleen Wynne, then the Liberal premier of Ontario, announced that her government would end the practice of selling private access to cabinet ministers and the premier in return for five-figure donations from individuals, corporations and unions.
It was naked influence-peddling. Ms. Wynne’s ministers were given quotas and told to hit up wealthy stakeholders in the economic sectors affected by their departments; in exchange, donors were given facetime with the person who controlled their regulatory fate.
That ended with legislation that banned corporate and union donations. Henceforth, only individuals would be allowed to donate, and the annual donation limit was reduced from $33,250 to $3,600. The law also provided for a per-vote subsidy for parties to help them get over the hump created by their new inability to peddle access.
The move in Ontario came after a similar one in Alberta, where in 2015 the NDP government of Rachel Notley finally capped the nearly unlimited gusher of donations that had helped keep the Progressive Conservatives in power for decades. Alberta banned union and corporate money, and dramatically lowered the limits for individual donors. The current maximum is $4,243 “to any combination” of parties, riding associations, nomination candidates and leadership candidates.
The federal government did something similar in 2003, banning corporate and union money and setting a maximum donation for individuals; this year it stands at $1,650 per party, plus another $1,650 in total to riding associations and candidates. Manitoba and Nova Scotia were on board by 2016; after Ontario’s reform, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island went on to ban corporate and union donations, and put caps on individual donations.
Today, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador are the only provinces that still allow corporations and unions to give money to politicians. But lost in this progress is the fact that individual donations are still too high in Ottawa and the provinces – except for Quebec, which has long set an annual limit of just $100.
Higher donation limits invite abuses. In 2016, the Trudeau government was in the cash-for-access hot seat. In one notable case, former finance minister Bill Morneau attended a fundraiser in the Halifax mansion of a land developer, for which donors paid $1,500 each to attend. Mr. Morneau was in prebudget consultations at the time.
In New Brunswick, where the individual limit is $3,000 a year, executives and owners made personal donations that exceeded their companies’ past donations after corporations and unions were barred from giving in 2017, according to a CBC report.
And now Ontario, once a harbinger of a more democratic politics, is at growing risk of bringing back the seedy practice of cash for access. In 2018, Premier Doug Ford increased the total donation limit to $4,800 from $3,600, and scrapped the part of the 2016 law that banned MPPs from attending fundraising events.
His government also removed a rule that obliged individuals to attest that the money they donated was their own, raising fears of forbidden corporate and union money coming in through a loophole. And now his government has tabled legislation to double the individual donation limit.
In Alberta, the province has upped the individual limit for municipal elections to $5,000 per candidate, with no limit on the number of candidates one person can donate to. It presents new opportunities for well-heeled donors seeking favourable decisions at city hall.
Money can be toxic in a democracy, and as always the dose makes the poison. As long as individuals can continue to donate thousands of dollars, there will be the perception – and very real possibility – of the buying and selling of influence.
This page has long advocated for the coast-to-coast adoption of Quebec’s $100 limit. Five years ago, elections and governments in too many parts of the country were compromised by their dependence on union and corporate money. The problem was tackled, thanks to public pressure. The next battle begins.
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