Politicians never learn from their predecessors' mistakes. Take Ontario Premier Doug Ford. His Progressive Conservative government announced last week that it plans to raise the maximum annual donation to political parties from $1,200 to $1,600 by 2020, and to repeal a law banning MPPs from attending fundraisers.
Mr. Ford is effectively bringing back the cash-for-access era of his province’s recent past. Although the final details are not yet known, there is no indication there will be any sort of reporting or other check on a regime that allows parties to trade donations for face-time with cabinet ministers.
Does Mr. Ford think he will be exempt from the public’s dislike of this practice? He probably does. Politicians tend to believe they are immune to the scandals of their forebears.
But we have our doubts. The experiences of those who came before him tell us otherwise.
Take Mr. Ford’s immediate predecessor, former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne. She denied for years that there was anything wrong with cash-for-access, but then saw the light under intense pressure from the media and the public. The scandal forced her to bring in the regime that Mr. Ford is planning to loosen up.
Or take Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He pretended cash-for-access was an acceptable practice until it blew up in his face in 2016, when it came to light that Finance Minister Bill Morneau had attended an exclusive Liberal Party fundraiser in the Halifax mansion of a wealthy land developer, and for which well-to-do business people had each paid the maximum allowable personal donation of $1,500 to attend. Mr. Morneau was in pre-budget consultations at the time.
Or how about former British Columbia premier Christy Clark, who hedged and dawdled on reforming her province’s wild west rodeo – no limits, and corporations and unions were free to shower political parties with endless cash – and ended up losing to the NDP in the last election. The NDP has since brought in much-needed reforms.
We have little doubt Mr. Ford will soon find himself in the same pickle as his counterparts. His argument that Ontario’s laws will be in line with the federal rules, and are therefore just fine, doesn’t wash. Ottawa’s rules are indeed among the strictest in the country in terms of donation limits, and they prohibit unions and corporations from giving, but that still didn’t prevent the Trudeau Liberals from selling access to cabinet ministers at exclusive parties in private homes.
Mr. Trudeau tried to argue that his party hadn’t actually broken a law, which was a very low bar to set and rightfully never gained traction with the public. He and his party were subsequently cowed into setting rules for Liberal fundraisers that require advance public notice of events and transparency about who attends, and which ban registered lobbyists from attending fundraisers involving cabinet ministers.
All too typically, those rules haven’t stuck. The Liberals have repeatedly allowed lobbyists to attend paid events; some of them were actually registered to lobby the minister who spoke at the fundraiser they attended.
And now Mr. Ford is falling into the same trap. His party’s proposed legislation even appears to open up a loophole that would allow indirect union and corporate donations, which would be a huge step backward.
If he were wiser, he would realize that the only way to avoid scandal is to lower annual donations to a maximum of $100 per individual, as Quebec did years ago, and to keep in place the per-vote public subsidy for parties that Ms. Wynne’s government implemented.
Mr. Ford says he will kill the subsidy by 2022 in order to save money, but he should first read a report by the federal Parliamentary Budget Office that came out earlier this year.
The PBO found that the cost of a public-subsidy program can be covered by setting a lower donation limit, because that in turn results in a reduction in the tax deductions governments give to people who make political donations.
For instance, Ottawa spends $40-million a year on tax deductions for political donations; the PBO estimated that a federal per-vote subsidy would cost it only slightly more – $44-million a year.
Mr. Ford will not save his province money by ending the subsidy and increasing the donation limit. What he will do is open the door to the cash-for-access scandals that dogged so many before him. His need to learn this for himself could cost him dearly.