There’s a simple way to stop politicians selling access for cash

Posted on in Governance Policy Context

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Editorials
Apr. 01, 2016.   Editorial

Let’s say you’re a provincial government that’s recently been embarrassed by revelations concerning political fundraising. We have a prescription to fix your problem, and our democracy.

Maybe you’re British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, whose Liberal Party quietly takes advantage of the province’s lack of political donation limits. As an example of what that allows, The Globe this week revealed that Simon Fraser University chancellor Anne Giardini recently hosted an intimate dinner with the Premier. Price of admission: a $10,000-per-person donation to the party. Sources also told The Globe of events with ticket prices as high as $20,000. The government insists it is not selling access to the highest bidder.

Or perhaps you’re Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose party raises millions of dollars from businesses and unions, much of it through events such as a recent $7,500-a-head fundraiser promoted by the bank that led the Hydro One privatization. It was also this week revealed that cabinet ministers have secret fundraising targets, which means that part of their job is encouraging members of the business community and organized labour to assist the good works of the Liberal Party with generous donations. The provincial Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats similarly trade face-time for cash.

Or maybe you’re the premier of Saskatchewan, or Newfoundland and Labrador or Prince Edward Island. You don’t currently have a fundraising scandal at the top of the national news. But neither do these provinces place any limits on political donations from corporations, unions or the wealthy.

The fix for all of this is simple: Download a copy of the excellent rules governing donations at the federal level – whose cornerstone principle is that only citizens should be allowed to donate to political parties. Photocopy the legislation. Pass it into law in your province. Problem solved.

In federal elections, corporate and union money is banned, and individual donations are capped at $1,525. Federal law also strictly limits spending by third parties – a huge problem in Ontario, where American-style Superpacs, allied with the Liberal Party and funded by millions of dollars in union donations, have for years circumvented the rules on campaign spending, donations and disclosure.

And for even stronger medicine, copy Quebec’s fundraising rules. They’re the country’s strictest. Corporate and union money is forbidden, and the individual donation limit is just $100 per year.

So far, that’s not quite what Ms. Wynne or Ms. Clark are proposing.

In the wake of this week’s revelations, the Ontario Premier says she will bring in changes to the province’s fundraising rules before the next election, in the spring of 2018. Exactly what changes she has in mind is uncertain; on Thursday, the Premier said she favoured “moving toward” federal-style limits on union and corporate donations. It’s not clear whether that means banning such donations or merely putting limits on them. At other times this week, Ms. Wynne mused about a lengthy transition period – hinting that whatever reforms are coming, they won’t be fully in place for years.

As for Ms. Clark, so far, she’s making Ms. Wynne look like a reform zealot. The B.C. Premier this week called for quicker public disclosure of political donations. Other than that, she doesn’t appear to be moving to address B.C.’s government-for-sale atmosphere.

B.C.’s Opposition NDP is expected to table a bill banning corporate and union donations. But in Ontario, the Opposition has been consistently half-hearted in its calls for reform, because all parties benefit from the system, and all take part. The Progressive Conservatives hold exclusive access events with high price tags and so do the New Democrats. Only a few weeks ago, Rachel Notley, the NDP Premier of Alberta was the featured item at a $9,975-a-plate event in Toronto attended by businesses and unions. Proceeds went to Ontario’s NDP; under Ms. Notley, Alberta last year banned business and union donations.

The solution to this mess is not to expect individual parties to stop taking union and corporate donations. It’s not realistic to ask any one party to unilaterally disarm.

Instead, the laws should be changed so these sources of money are no longer legal, and no longer available. The game won’t change until the rulebook does.

Political actors rarely do anything not at least partly in their self-interest. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien limited donations and ended the era of bagmen in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. It was a way of wiping the slate clean after so much dirt, and it didn’t hurt that ending the Liberal Party’s long-standing fundraising method hobbled his rival and successor, Paul Martin. A few years later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper further tightened the rules, by eliminating corporate and union donations. He did so as the head of a party that was the master at fundraising in small amounts.

And in Alberta pre-2015, the Progressive Conservative Party government had a hammerlock on corporate donations. So it was easy for the NDP to bring Alberta democracy into the 21st century by banning union and business money.

Which brings us to Ms. Wynne’s self-interest. Guess which Ontario political party has a $5-million debt? That would be Patrick Brown’s Progressive Conservatives. If Ms. Wynne brought down tough new political fundraising rules immediately, it would be extremely difficult for the PCs to climb out of their financial hole before the next election. She could legitimately claim the moral high ground as a champion of democratic reform, while royally sticking it to the opposition. And in politics as in political fundraising, who isn’t looking to make a winning trade?

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