PCs take Ontario back to bad old days of political fundraising

Posted on in Governance Policy Context

NationalPost.com – Opinion – Buried within Bill 57 are a set of changes that would at the least loosen, and potentially eviscerate, the province’s new campaign finance regime
Andrew Coyne

Thursday’s fall economic statement from the Doug Ford government may have been vague, windy and misleading about the issues it was supposed to address — trifling matters such as the size of the deficit, or what the government intends to do about it — but it had some very specific things to say about an entirely unrelated question: financing political parties in Ontario.

Not so long ago, you’ll recall, Ontario had one of the loosest campaign finance regimes in the democratic world. Individuals, corporations or unions could donate virtually as much as they liked to political parties, then contribute further unlimited amounts to so-called “third-party” groups to support some parties or oppose others. Political leaders, including the premier and other members of cabinet, were regular attendees at private fund-raising events charging donors thousands of dollars in return for privileged access to ministerial ears.

Then the world fell in. Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, desperate to save their doomed government, were caught taking particularly enthusiastic part in the cash-for-access scam. Unable to talk their way out of it, they suddenly got religion, introducing sweeping reforms to the campaign finance regulations. Individual donations were limited to $1,200. Corporate and union donations were banned outright, third-party spending was capped, and politicians were barred from whoring themselves or their senior staff at party fund-raisers.

The legislation passed with all-party support in December 2016. From that day until last week, the Progressive Conservatives had made no mention of any plan to reverse or alter the Wynne reforms. Yet there, buried within the 176 pages of Bill 57 (The Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act), tabled with the statement, are a set of changes that would at the least loosen, and potentially eviscerate, the province’s new campaign finance regime.

What urgent public imperative requires that corporations and unions be allowed to donate to political parties — and not openly but surreptitiously?

The individual donation limit would be raised to $1,600. The ban on cash-for-access fundraisers would be lifted so far as it applied to ordinary members of the  legislature, party leaders (other than the premier) and their staff. Worst of all, corporations and unions would be provided with a giant loophole to re-enter the political fund-raising game.

Yes, they would still be banned from contributing directly. But the bill would repeal the previous ban on indiirect donations, via their employees or members. The Wynne legislation had prohibited individuals from donating “funds that do not actually belong to the person,” specifically “funds that have been given or furnished by any person or group of persons or by a corporation or trade union for the purpose of making a contribution.” As of Bill 57, that’s gone.

Why was this done? What urgent public imperative requires that corporations and unions be allowed to donate to political parties — and not openly, in a manner that might invite public scrutiny, but surreptitiously? For that matter, why was any of it necessary? In what conceivable way are the political parties of Ontario, which between them had revenues of more than $18 million in 2017, starving for funds?

None of this would be apparent from a reading of the economic statement, in which the whole thing is presented as a move to “more closely align Ontario with federal rules on contribution limits and fundraising events.” Or rather, it’s a move to save money for the taxpayers. “The government,” it reads, “believes that taxpayers should not be forced to pay more and work harder to make life easier for politicians.”

How are taxpayers being forced to pay now? Because the Wynne reforms, at the same time as they restricted the parties’ ability to raise money from private donors, provided them with an offsetting annual public subsidy, called an “allowance,” based on the number of votes each got in the previous election. At $2.71 per vote, it more than made up for any shortfall in private funds, at least for the Liberals and NDP. Only the PCs, who raised more than the other two parties combined, suffered an overall decline.

So now the PCs are phasing out the subsidy, in time for the next election. That’s fair enough, if self-serving: political parties have no moral right to force people to pay for their activities, just because they can.

But why does that require loosening the limits on private donors — any more than Wynne’s restrictions on the latter required the parties be compensated out of public funds? Never mind that taxpayers will still be footing the bill for part of those donations, via the attached tax credit. Why can’t the parties simply make do with less?

Both sides in the campaign finance debate tend to assume parties need to raise something like the current amounts. They differ only on the method: private or public. But there’s no reason parties need to spend anything like as much as they do, and lots of reasons to prefer they should spend less — particularly since most of what it is spent on is for things society would be better off without. Would we really miss all those attack ads and push-polls? Would life be more drab with fewer robo-calls at dinner-time?

The only reason any of them need to spend so much is because the others do. But if all of them were forced to spend less, none could complain of unfair treatment. Certainly there is no democratic necessity for it: it has never been easier or cheaper for parties to “get their message out.” We could have an electorate that was at least as well informed at a fraction of the current cost.

I get that the parties like spending those needless millions of dollars, or more particularly the people who make their living off them do: all those staffers, consultants, pollsters, strategists, advertising gurus, and so on. But in the long run even they would be better off finding honest work.

Andrew Coyne: PCs take Ontario back to bad old days of political fundraising

Tags: , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 20th, 2018 at 3:19 pm and is filed under Governance Policy Context. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply