Hot! Fixing Ontario’s double democratic deficit

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published On Mon Nov 14 2011.   By Martin Regg Cohn, Queen’s Park Columnist

Whatever your politics, last month’s provincial election results were doubly depressing: Voter-buying, and voter turnout, reached new highs and lows.

Yes, there was much public hand-wringing about the rapid decline in ballots cast, which dipped below 50 per cent of eligible voters for the first time. Yet any serious talk about how to remedy our homegrown democratic deficit has faded from the agenda.

Meanwhile, the dearth of voters was matched by a surge in fundraising, leaving our political parties awash in cash from major corporations and big unions. By national standards, Queen’s Park remains an anachronism, an island of old-style politics.

Let me stress the point: Compared to Stephen Harper’s Canada, where campaign financing has entered the modern era, Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario is frozen in time. An electoral backwater.

Two decades ago, the federal Liberals (under Jean Chrétien) sharply limited corporate and union donations to $1,000. Harper went further after winning power in 2006 by banning them entirely and restricting individual contributions to $1,200.

In McGuinty’s Ontario, corporations and unions can still exploit an annual limit of $16,500 in combined donations to a party, candidates and riding associations. At election time, they can double up.

The biggest single donor so far this year was not a company but a union. As the Star’s Joanna Smith reported this month, the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario made nine separate donations totalling $41,510, of which $25,260 went to McGuinty’s party (the Tories got $14,000 from them and their NDP brethren a mere $2,250.)

Research in Motion Inc. gave $9,500 to the Liberals, its two co-CEOs gave another $37,700 (as individuals), and their families donated an additional $65,100 — which adds up to a $112,300 haul. The big banks are also generous donors to both Liberals and Tories, as are energy and infrastructure companies that do business with the government

It’s never something for nothing. No one should be able to get into bed with the party in power, nor pay so much for the privilege. It’s time to bring Ontario into the modern age of Canadian campaign finance laws to remove the shadow of undue influence by vested interests.

Here’s another challenge for the three major parties if they’re serious about rescuing a democracy that’s dying or, at best, atrophying: Internet voting.

Turnouts have been declining steadily, from 68 per cent in 1975 to 49 per cent last month. It’s a warning sign that cries out for action — the proverbial canary in the cardboard ballot box.

As much as I love trekking to my local polling booth on election day, heart swelling with pride at the sight of my fellow citizens casting their votes, I know in my heart of hearts that this quaint scene is part of our past. People rarely line up for bank tellers, or even ATMs; they bank online. Investors don’t deal with brokers, they opt for day trading. If the big banks can rely on the Internet for security, so can democracies.

Just as young adults can find time to surf Facebook instead of attending a protest, they are more likely to vote if they can click the ballot on their computer screen. Spare me the usual excuses about hackers and voter fraud.

Markham has been trying it municipally since 2003, and turnout has increased by 30 per cent (with research showing young e-voters wouldn’t otherwise have bothered.) Elections Ontario is planning a pilot program next year, but it needs a push from the Legislature.

Where there is a political will, there is a democratic way. If you build it, they will vote.

If the politicians can agree on nothing else when they take their seats in the Legislature next week, they should at least stand together for the democratic process. If not, the next election will only worsen the double jeopardy of ever more money influencing even fewer voters.

Martin Regg Cohn’s provincial affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.mcohn@thestar.catwitter.com/reggcohn.

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