Inside Queen's Park: Money greases those political wheels

Politics is about many things: serving the community, leadership, decision-making, law-making, and much more.

Party politics, however, is about money. While Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has talked a good game since being caught with the party’s hand in the cookie jar, it’s still politics as usual at Queen’s Park.

Wynne will introduce changes to the Ontario Election Finances Act to be in place Jan. 1, 2017. They will bar union and corporate donations, but there aren’t a lot of details. The Liberals are embarrassed by recent headlines exposing a policy requiring cabinet ministers to raise $500,000 a year for the party.

They did this by lending their name and presence to events where the audience paid hundreds or thousands of dollars per ticket just to be there.

Those guests included many prominent citizens, among them business people, chief executive officers, entrepreneurs, and more than a few lawyers.

They weren’t there for canapés and rubber chicken. It’s a mere coincidence then that last December Scotiabank promoted a $7,500-per-person fundraiser for the Ontario Liberals that raised $165,000 towards Finance Minister Charles Sousa and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli’s quota, according to one media outlet. It probably had nothing to do with Scotiabank being a lead underwriter for the Hydro One initial public offering. The $30 million in fees all the banks stood to make from the sale wasn’t a factor at all.
Surely, that’s reasonable? Everyone does it, don’t they?

Well, yes and no. The fact is Ontario’s regulations around fundraising schemes and third-party advertising are the loosest in the land. PC leader Patrick Brown has ramped up a campaign calling for a public inquiry into campaign fundraising. Wynne will sidestep this neatly by tabling these changes.

Changes to the Ontario Election Finances Act RSO 1990 are long overdue and, as NDP leader Andrea Horwath notes, the chief electoral officer should be asked for his input as part of the process.

Wynne, however, invited both leaders to a meeting to discuss the issue and then delivered a fait accompli outline.

As it stands, the Act prescribes donations only by individuals, non-charitable corporations, and trade unions, barring cash transactions above $25. This differs from federal regulations, which bar contributions from unions and corporations. The caps are generous: $9,975 per calendar year, plus $9,975 per campaign period to each party; $1,330 per calendar year to constituency associations of any one party; $6,650 per calendar year to each registered candidate, or to registered candidates of all parties.

Following the federal government’s lead and banning unions and corporations and setting lower limits for individuals to control disbursements through “fronts” would be an easy first step, though one imagines the Liberal party’s fundraising chair might beg for an extended phase-in so they could adapt their machinery accordingly.

Wynne has foreseen this obvious issue, penning a Liberal-approved series of amendments. There will be a series of hearings this summer, but Wynne has already noted she’s not afraid to flex her majority muscle to get her agenda through.

Also on the table is the disposition of the role U.S.-style Superpacs play in Ontario elections, tilting the playing field with partisan advertising, which is neither limited by the Elections Finance Act nor restrained by spending caps.

Again, we know little of her plan here, but it’s due some consideration. As the chief electoral officer noted last year, in the 2014 general election, third parties, predominantly dominated by unions, spent $8.4 million in advertising, up from $6 million in the 2011 campaign, most of it slamming Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak. By contrast, the party spending cap was $7.4 million. The law requires only third parties to register, but it does not cap or control spending.

 “In recent elections, certain third parties have increased significantly what they spend on advertising,” a report released after the 2014 election by the chief electoral officer noted. “The chief electoral officer believes that this reality could very well produce a situation in which parties and candidates campaign on an uneven playing field.”

Since then, private members bills to reign in third parties have unceremoniously died on introduction.

And that’s the problem. What we’re talking about is creating a level playing field for the democratic process and it seems just a tad too important to be left to the “politics-as-usual” crowd. Majority or not, these amendments should be transparently spelled out and benefit no party, no candidate, and no leader.

Ian Harvey has been a journalist for more than 35 years writing about a diverse range of issues including
legal and political affairs. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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