Having campaigned on little beyond not being Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals, Doug Ford and the Conservatives have little in the way of a mandate. The party’s electoral victory was the public’s less-of-two-evils choice to replace a tired, much-despised government.
Much of what Ford has sprung on Ontarians was not mentioned during last summer’s election campaign. Included on that undisclosed list was loosening election financing rules put in place a couple of years ago to stem the tide of influence peddling that had become a Wynne art form.
The changes, approved by all parties in December 2016, followed revelations Wynne’s Liberals had set fundraising quotas and were selling access to the premier and cabinet ministers. Campaign contributions were capped at $1,200 for an individual, with companies and unions no longer permitted to donate to political parties, a large decrease from limits of almost $10,000, plus another $6,700 to constituency offices.
In addition to the direct donations, the Liberal move also restricted third-party donations and spending.
This week, however, the Ford government quietly adopted changes that raised the donation limit to $1,600 and provide a loophole for corporate and union spending. There was apparently no sense of irony sneaking the changes into Bill 57, The Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act.
Ford’s rationale for this seems clear: the Tories are taking in more donations than the Liberals and NDP combined, and loosening corporate donations would be a boon to the party. The move also makes it easier for Ford to cut the per-vote subsidy each party gets since 2017 as part of Wynne’s financing reform legislation, an issue he did raise when seeking the PC leadership.
Though the Tories are eligible to receive the largest amount due to election results – $5.5 million, compared to $4.6 million for the NDP, $2.6 million for the Liberals and the Green’s $630,000 – their fundraising advantage would grow while the opposition parties would suffer. That’s a win in Ford’s book.
Ford will likely champion the $12 million in annual savings that would come with cutting the subsidies, which would be well and good if the plan wasn’t to return to a free-for-all as far as political vote-buying and lobbying go.
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.
Wynne’s changes didn’t go far enough, which is reason to strengthen election-financing rules, not loosen them. What we really need is an outright ban on donations and third-party advertising. Real democratic reform would also end lobbying, as well as the revolving door between government and corporations/lobbyists.
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.