We must go further to get big money out of Ontario politics

This article was originally published on HuffingtonPost on 05.27.2016.

After being shamed into action by media reports and letter writing campaigns, the Ontario Liberals have finally introduced an election financing reform bill.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough in cleaning up the fundraising mess at Queen’s Park.

The changes move the dial in the right direction — by banning corporate and union donations, for example. But privileged hands can still find their way into the cookie jar.

The bill must do more to lower spending and contribution limits. Otherwise, it won’t get the corrosive influence of big money out of Ontario politics.

Under the new rules, deep-pocketed donors can still contribute up to $7,750 to a political party, its local associations and candidates. Is this real reform when so few Ontarians have that kind of money to donate to a political party?

High limits mean high-end donors can still buy access. And since the Liberal bill doesn’t ban cash-for-access events, government ministers can still shake down big donors. What kind of influence will that much money buy the 1 per cent?

At a minimum, the annual contribution limit should be capped at $1,500 total to a party, including its associations and candidates. The GPO would like to see that limit lowered even further over time.

Quebec, by contrast, has an annual donation limit of $100. Parties fund their operations and campaigns with these low contribution limits because Quebec has lower spending limits for parties than Ontario. Quebec has also decided that publicly funding parties through a per vote allowance, instead of donations from high rollers, is more democratic and fair.

The Liberal’s draft bill does not change Ontario’s political party spending limits, currently $0.80 per elector. That means a party’s total campaign spending limit is around $7.4 million based on the 2014 voters list of 9,248,764 electors.

Quebec’s limit is $0.68 per elector. In Ontario, that would give parties a campaign spending limit of around $6.3 million. Taking over a million dollars out of a party’s potential maximum budget would reduce the pressure to raise big bucks.

Political parties do need money — hearing from parties about where they stand on issues is part of a healthy democracy. (It would be nice to see less of the negative attack ads that seem so frequent these days, but lower spending limits should help with this.)

That’s why a per vote allowance, as proposed in the draft bill, is a good thing when combined with lower spending and contribution limits.

Consider this. Right now we have a pay-to-play system. If you have money, you can gain access to parties, MPPs and even the Premier through exclusive fundraising events.

This pay-to-play system currently provides around $13.4 million of public funding to political parties through generous tax credits for their donors. For example, a person who donates $2,500 to a party will receive a refundable tax credit of approximately $1,150. This is a public subsidy that benefits deep-pocketed donors and the parties who seek their money.

We also provide a public subsidy to parties by reimbursing 20 per cent of a candidate’s campaign expenses if s/he receives at least 15 per cent of the vote. This reimbursement encourages candidates to spend more and should be eliminated.

But what if we move to a vote-to-play system? This means that your vote would be worth about 2 bucks a year to the party you choose to support. This enables everyone, not just the wealthy, to direct donations to a political party.

The estimated cost of the per vote allowance is $10.9 million. This is not only more democratic — every vote counts — this public funding model is also less expensive!

Quebec has already replaced the pay-to-play funding system that enables insiders to buy access with a more democratic vote-to-play funding system. The per vote allowance should enable the government to go further in lowering spending and contribution limits.

We know the political cookie jar is tempting — that’s why we need to put pressure on the Liberals to make real, transformative change, not just to take a few steps in that direction.

Committee hearings on fundraising reform will begin in June. Let the Premier and your MPP know that you want big money out of Ontario politics now.