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A look at fundraising rules across Canada following Ontario pledge

Last Updated Apr 5, 2016 at 4:40 pm EDT

Debates raging in two Canadian provinces are giving voice to at least some of the myriad approaches to political fundraising currently in place across the country.

Ontario and British Columbia have recently made pledges to reform the ways money is raised to sustain political parties, with Prince Edward Island joining the chorus on Tuesday with a vow to visit the issue in the coming months.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to introduce new legislation banning union and corporate donations and setting individual contribution limits after scandals erupted over privately held fundraisers. Wynne also cancelled her future “private” fundraising events and instructed her cabinet ministers to follow suit.

British Columbia’s finance minister, on the other hand, recently stated that future reforms would not include forbidding contributions from unions or corporations or setting up caps for personal donations. Mike De Jong said the current system, which has no limits on anything besides anonymous donations, would be allowed to stand with a few transparency modifications.

Experts say the two approaches represent a microcosm of the way political fundraising has been handled in the country. Regulations vary from province to province, with another set of rules entirely for donors federally.

While a consensus approach seems to be emerging, pundits say the issue is far from resolved.

“Most jurisdictions are moving towards a system that limits the amount of money that corporations and unions can give and relies more on individual donors,” said David Docherty, president of Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“The interesting thing is that support for political parties is decreasing, so that will continue to create challenges for political parties to raise money.”

Docherty said Wynne had “gotten religion fairly quickly on this matter” by moving to adopt systems that have already been rolled out in several provinces.

Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and the federal government have all banned money from unions and corporations while still allowing individuals to make relatively hefty financial contributions.

Quebec has taken things to another level, limiting annual individual donations to $100 per party. Each party’s coffers are publicly topped up through a subsidy assigning a certain amount of money for each ballot cast in their favour.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, hailed Quebec’s as the ideal system, saying it ensures fairness across the board.

“It is based on a donation limit and public subsidies that require parties to have a broad base of support in order to prosper financially,” he said.

Other systems, such as those in place in Ontario, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, feature limits that allow a small number of wealthy contributors to have a disproportionate impact on the vote, Conacher said. Unions and corporations are also allowed to direct money to their party of choice.

He condemned limit-free systems in B.C., Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador even further, describing them as “undemocratic and unethical.”

Conacher argued that the Quebec system should be applied across all Canadian jurisdictions, a position that not all pundits share.

Docherty acknowledged that vote subsidies have given smaller parties a needed financial boost in the past, but said they also help the party currently in power to stay there.

Low personal contribution limits tend to level the playing field during camapgins, but also leave the system open to “in-and-out schemes” in which national parties transfer money to riding associations, only to have the ridings transfer the funds back.

Others advocate looking for answers beyond Quebec’s borders.

Alex Marland, political science professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, said the federal approach of banning union and corporate donations while capping individual sums at $1,525 has proven sound and effective.

For provinces, however, he said it may not be a viable option.

“The main model that exists is fundraising directly from Canadians,” he said. “The federal party has millions and millions of people to draw from. It’s not the case at a provincial level, particularly in a small province.”

Marland hopes to see greater transparency among Canada’s fundraising practices, including disclosure of where each individual contribution is spent. Specifically, Marland hopes to see parties offer potential donors a choice on whether they want to financially support negative advertising campaigns.

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