Although Canada isn’t as egregiously unfair as the U.S. in terms of election financing, we can’t get too smug here – the bar hasn’t been set very high in that comparison.
Long tipped in favour of big money, the American system got much worse following the 2010 Citizens United court decision that essentially threw out any pretense of a level playing field. Federally and provincially, we have tighter controls on donations and, to some extent, third-party advertising. Laws around bribery and influence peddling exist to be circumvented.
The issue is being discussed again right now by the Green Party of Ontario during the provincial byelection in Whitby-Oshawa.
“Is the government making decisions based on the public interest – or on party fundraising goals? I was appalled to learn that Liberal cabinet ministers have fundraising targets,” said GPO leader Mike Schreiner in response to a recent report that Bruce Power, which signed a multi-billion dollar deal to rebuild the Bruce Nuclear Station, hosted a $100,000 private dinner for Premier Kathleen Wynne and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli.
“The Liberals are making energy decisions that Ontario can’t afford, and they’re doing it behind closed doors at fundraising dinners where the nuclear industry pours money into Liberal coffers. Does this explain why the Liberals refuse to conduct a public review of nuclear costs or emergency plans?”
Shreiner’s party calls for a provincial ban on corporate and union donations to political parties as a way to reduce the shady influence of money in politics. The federal government and other provinces ban such donations, though there are plenty of loopholes. Enough, in fact, to effectively circumvent the democratic process, organizations such as Democracy Watch argue. The group points out that despite the passage of Bill C-24 in 2003 and Bill C-2 in December 2006, it’s still legal for wealthy special interests to give unlimited amounts of money, property or services in secret to candidates in federal nomination races and federal party leadership races, some of the many loopholes that still exist in the federal political donations system. As the Green Party comments show, Ontario doesn’t even reach that level.
Last June, the new Alberta NDP government banned corporate and union donations to political parties, riding associations and candidates but left many other undemocratic loopholes open. Quebec recently limited donations to $100 to fight political corruption. Nationally, while the federal Liberals promised to regulate pre-election spending by parties, that pledge did not necessarily include third parties – a big problem, as evidenced by the goings-on to the south.
Surveys show that a large majority of Canadians believe governments are driven by wealthy interest groups, especially corporate donors, and that governments regularly act unethically to help their business friends and are not doing enough to stop corruption. Surveys also show that a large majority of Canadians support placing strict limits on the influence of wealthy interests in politics.
When these interests are bankrolling the political process in secret, it is that much harder for other voices to be heard. Many of citizen groups who lobby for progressive reforms in Canada understand all too well the influence that powerful corporate lobbies can use to halt these reforms.
Few if any of these considerations make their way into legislation protecting the system and citizens.