Money and politics have been bedmates since the dawn of time, but their trysts are always as secretive as can be. They don't want everyone to know they're having an affair. It's embarrassing for the politicians who are, after all, wearing the electorate's wedding ring.
This week, Alberta's NDP government was dogged by allegations that it was having unethical financial relations with donors. The party held a fundraiser at the Art Gallery of Alberta; tickets were $250 a pop. It also planned an intimate dinner before the fundraiser, promising face-time with the Premier and ministers, priced at $1,000. After the opposition complained to the province's ethics commissioner, the New Democrats cancelled the dinner.
It further emerged that Premier Rachel Notley had earlier travelled to Toronto for an even more exclusive fundraising event, hosted by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath. Tickets: $9,975. Because politics never likes being caught in bed with money, the Canadian Press reports that journalists who asked the premier's office about her trip were initially told she was going to accept an award.
The Ontario NDP eventually released a list of the evening's attendees. They were the Insurance Bureau of Canada, Labatt Canada, Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario, the Society of Energy Professionals, United Association, USW National, Teranet Inc., Borealis Infrastructure, Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association, General Electric and Eli Lilly Canada.
The fact that this was a corporate event outraged the opposition in Alberta – where corporate and union donations are now outlawed. "Alberta companies who cannot donate to the NDP in Alberta can pay ten grand in Ontario to get special face-to-face interaction," said Jason Nixon, the Wildrose Party's democratic accountability critic. "It is unseemly and it is unethical."
Ms. Notley's office says her travel costs were paid by her Ontario hosts, and that all money raised went to the Ontario NDP. But Mr. Nixon is certainly right that it looks unseemly. He's got a case for unethical. He did not mention illegal, and with good reason. Political money gets up to a lot of things that are, unfortunately, perfectly legal – particularly in Ontario, where the rules are extraordinarily lax.
To put Ms. Notley's alleged misdeeds in context, it's important to remember that Alberta's political fundraising rules are much tougher than Ontario's – and for that, credit goes entirely to her.
For years, Alberta was the Wild West of political donations. As the province's long-serving sheriff, the Progressive Conservatives benefitted from that state of affairs. Both the NDP and Wildrose ran on platforms promising to rein in the influence of money in politics. Once elected, the NDP banned corporate and union donations. Personal donation limits are still too high – a person can give up to $15,000 to a single political party, plus additional amounts for constituency associations and candidates – but Alberta has taken a big step forward.
In Ontario, however, politicians have grown accustomed to the pleasures of late-night assignations with deep-pocketed donors in downtown hotels. Corporate and union contributions are perfectly legal. They are consequently plentiful, and plenty influential.
If you've ever wondered why Ontario for decades maintained a legal monopoly on the sale of beer in the hands of a private-sector retailer owned by the world's largest private brewers, consider: Between 2004 and 2014, the companies and their employee unions donated $1.6-million to Ontario's three major political parties.
Thanks to steps taken by Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, federal political parties are banned from accepting corporate or union donations – this was Alberta's inspiration. There are also tight annual limits on individual contributions: $1,525 per person to a political party. The federal restrictions ought to be tougher – Quebec's provincial contribution limit is just $100 – but it's progress.
South of the border, the influence of money on politics is far greater, and so is the public outrage. The leading insurgency presidential candidates, Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump, have little in common – except that both are running against big money in politics. Hillary Clinton is dogged by the perception that she and her husband have spent nearly their entire adult lives picking up billions of dollars in cheques, on which donors will expect a return if she wins the White House.
And thanks to a legal loophole allowing unlimited donations to notionally independent entities known as Super PACs, individual donors can give tens of millions of dollars to candidates. Super PACs have already spent $215-million in the presidential race.
In Canada, Ontario has the most virulent case of American-style Super PACs, albeit on a smaller scale. And in Ontario, it's unions, not cranky billionaires, who have mastered the game.
Canada's most successful, "independent" third-party campaign organization is the union-funded group known as Working Families. Through several Ontario provincial elections it has behaved as a proxy for the Liberal Party, getting around the official limits on election expenses and political fundraising, spending millions of dollars running attack ads against the Progressive Conservatives. It's all perfectly legal and entirely wrong.
Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP were given a yellow card this week for their handling of political donations, and not for the first time. But they can at least say that when they came into office less than a year ago, they took a step to strengthen democracy by reducing the influence of money in politics. Few Canadian leaders – and none in Ontario – can say as much.