This week marked a watershed moment in Ontario, and we hope across Canada. After years of bankrolling her party with donations from corporations and unions, and only days after once again insisting that the practice should continue, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne suddenly announced that corporate and union donations were wrong. She says her government will table legislation this spring to end them.
The about-face means that Ms. Wynne appears to have decided to join a growing movement in Canada to get corporate and union money out of politics.
If Canada's largest province follows through, it will be a huge victory for democracy. The federal government and the provinces of Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have banned corporate and union donations. We believe all the remaining provinces should do the same, while also establishing low limits for individual donations. It's time to end the obvious conflicts of interest when ministers seek bags of money from the industries they regulate. It's time to reduce the influence of money in Canadian politics.
Over the next few weeks, we will examine, one-by-one, the political donation regimes in each province, and at the federal level. We will name the people who can and should fix those regimes that come up short. But before we do that, here are what we believe are the four basic principles of clean, conflict-free political financing.
(1) Ban corporate and union donations. Democracy is about people, not limited liability companies and giant bargaining units. Corporations and unions shouldn't be able to use massive donations to tilt an election, or to buy exclusive access to government.
It is telling that political parties that still defend corporate and union donations tend to be the ones that have been longest in power. The Liberals in B.C., in office for more than a decade, support corporate and union donations with a grasping passion, and why not? They raised $5.3-million last year from companies. Those same donors gave the opposition NDP a grand total of $145,920.
The B.C. Liberals defend the practice on the grounds the donations are publicly disclosed. But the disclosure comes long after a donation has been made, and all they show is that oodles of money are given to the Liberals by resource companies and Vancouver-area real-estate developers – who based on the track record of donations must feel they are getting value for money.
In practical terms, disclosure is useless. It does nothing to change the perception that money buys access for the wealthy and the connected; in fact, it reconfirms it. Read the disclosures of the governing Liberal parties in B.C. and Ontario, and you will immediately conclude that corporate and union donations must be stopped, now.
(2) Individual donation limits should be low – possibly as low as $100. These rules should apply at all times, including election years and during party leadership campaigns.
Within reason, Canadians should be able to freely use their means to support their preferred political party. However, most provinces set very high limits, or have no limits at all on individual donations. But look at what happened in Quebec. It was the first province to ban corporate and union donations, and, until 2011, it had a maximum individual limit of $1,000.
It didn't work. Wealthy business owners were contributing the maximum amount and getting their family members, company executives and even their employees to contribute as well. The abuse became so apparent during Quebec's protracted investigation into political corruption that the limit was lowered to $100 in 2013.
Quebec's $100 limit might seem severe, but it guarantees that every donation carries equal weight with the political party that receives it.
If parties cry poverty and say they won't be able to raise enough money to operate, they are merely reciting a proven lie. The last federal election was a faceoff between parties that cannot accept corporate and union donations, and for whom the current individual donation limit is $1,525.
Even at $100 per donor, parties could still have plenty of cash. The B.C. Liberals, for instance, received 795,946 votes in the 2013 general election. If they could hit up just 10 per cent of that support for $100 each, that's almost $8-million in the bank. Even in tiny PEI, a party could raise close to $1-million by getting $100 each from just 10 per cent of the island's 95,000 registered voters.
Given these numbers, there's no need to publicly fund parties with matching donations and per-vote subsidies, as Quebec now does. That used to be the case in Ottawa, too, but was phased out starting in 2011 – to no ill effect.
(3) Limit party spending at all times – not just for a few weeks every four years, during an election campaign. This is particularly important in a world where the federal government and many provinces now have fixed election dates.
This was a problem in the federal campaign last year. Parties and third-party lobby groups were able to spend unlimited amounts on advertising in the months before the writ officially dropped for October's fixed-date election. If spending limits during official campaigns periods make sense, then so do limits during the unofficial campaign of a fixed-date election year.
(4) Third-party election spending must be regulated and limited – or else parties and donors will form super PACs and get around points 1 to 3. That's what has been happening in Ontario for years, thanks to the pro-Liberal, union-funded group known as Working Families.
Canada's political parties can survive without accepting donations from the corporations they regulate and the unions they negotiate with. They also don't need to be able to raise tens of thousands of dollars from rich individual donors. The time has come for every province to join a movement that is making Canada more democratic.