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Taking It To The Street

Tories' $3.3 Million Debt:

Blame Ontario's Conflict-Ridden Campaign Finance System

 

It's Time To Overhaul Our Antiquated System

 

 By Susanna Kelley

 

So Tim Hudak lives to fight another day.

By voting down a constitutional amendment to hold an immediate leadership review, the PC gathering in London last weekend has guaranteed Mr. Hudak will remain in the driver's seat until the next election at least.

 In the end many in the party felt it was no time to change leaders, even if some have their doubts about whether Mr. Hudak can win for them or not.

So a kind of "don't change horses in mid-stream" argument won the day.

And who knows? Anything can happen between now and the next election.

But one of the issues hampering the Tories is their financial situation.

Last winter the party's executive voted to hold the line on spending in the next campaign to $8 million.

However, since it has a debt of $3.3 million from the last election, this essentially leaves it less than $5 million to spend.

We know this thanks to a letter sent out by PC party president Richard Ciano to the party faithful. 

Many in the party were angry with Mr. Ciano for making the information public.

It gives away a good part of the PC campaign strategy, certainly taking away the element of surprise when it comes to those all-important - and uber expensive - TV campaign ads.

But the very fact that any political party has to worry constantly about this sort of thing harkens back to our ridiculously skewed and counter-productive election financing system.

Party leaders, elected MPPs, nominated candidates and defeated MPPs are forced to spend a good chunk of their time holding and going to fundraisers - their own and each other's.

Campaigns are very expensive to run, and the candidate that spends the most has a huge leg-up at the ballot box.

But our current system comes with another, even more important cost.

There is the total conflict of interest set up by making our politicians so dependent on private financial donations from corporations, unions and individuals just to be able to run for office.

It makes things very messy and difficult for MPPs once they get into office and their donors come knocking to remind them of the money they gave.

It's really time to overhaul such a massively conflicted system.

Federally there have been some attempts to reform campaign financing.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien came the closest to making the system fair.

In 2003 his government made donations by corporations and unions illegal, so that only individuals are now eligible to donate to political parties.

Up to that point Mr. Chretien's reforms seemed fair and promised to be a big improvement.

However, Mr. Chretien immediately skewed the reforms by making the government subsidy of parties dependent on the final vote tallies each party got.

In other words, the party that got the most votes in the last election got the most money from the government post-election.

Incumbents already have any number of major advantages - profile, name recognition and the opportunity to get government money for their riding, especially if they are members of the governing party.

Which translates into an easier campaign trail than someone running for the first time against the incumbent.

We in Ontario are way behind on campaign finance reform.

Corporations and unions are still allowed to donate to parties along with individuals.

And it's a lot of money.

Here's a quick synopsis of the rules, according to Elections Ontario:

Any of these donors - corporations, unions or individuals - can contribute up to $9,300 to a central party in any year, as well as another $9,300 for each campaign period.

In addition, they can give a further $6200 a year to riding associations, as long as no one riding association is given more than $1,240 annually. 

Then a further $6200 can be donated to candidates of a party, with a limit of no more than $1,240 to a single candidate during a campaign period.

That means, over a four-year election cycle, a corporation, union or individual can each donate $77,500, if there are no by-elections.

Plus, any time a by-election is called, those donors can give a further $15,500.

These donations are heavily subsidized by the public.

For individuals, the contribution are tax deductible anywhere from 33.3% to 75%, depending on the amount donated.

That means any one donor actually gets up to three-quarters of his/her donation back, paid by Ontario taxpayers.

Corporations and unions also receive tax deductions for political donations.

As campaigns are geared for television, and TV advertising is very expensive, the party with the largest total donations has a huge advantage.

But there are reasons corporations, unions and individuals donate to a party or a politician.

They have decided that party or candidate best represents their interests and wants to help he/she get elected to do that.

There's nothing wrong with that - on the surface.

But remember the old adage "He who pays the piper, calls the tune."

And inevitably, eventually, after the election, the piper comes calling.

One need only look at the United States to see what dependence on massive private donations has wrought.

The amount of money - from fundraising - required to become the President of the United States has reached obscene proportions.

Election spending by the Obama and Romney campaigns in the 2012 Presidential topped $2.6 billion.

How could either Obama or Romney have made it to the White House without owing a ton of people? 

What's more, according to ABC News, 47% of U.S. members of Congress are now millionaires.

Their interests will obviously be different from the average American struggling to keep afloat as the US begins its painfully slow economic recovery.

But there is a solution.

And it would likely cost much the same as our current system, with its tax credit subsidies and reimbursements, costs taxpayers now.

Under the auspices of Elections Ontario (or Elections Canada, depending on which level of campaign) each registered candidate should be given the exact same amount of money by the government to run their campaigns, and that is all that they would be allowed to spend.

Under such a system, elected politicians would not owe anyone anything once they get to office.

They would be free to represent their constituents without worrying that their big donors would pull the plug on them.

Some say this type of system would encourage nuisance candidates who would garner no more than a few hundred votes.

However, requiring a deposit that is non-refundable should a candidate not get a minimum number of votes, as is currently the case, would discourage that.  

Another objection to the idea of an equal, public campaign subsidy is that no taxpayer should be forced to have their money go to a politician or party they don't support.

However, that is exactly the case currently.

Because of the tax deduction/public subsidy for donations, every taxpayer ends up giving money to political parties they don't support.

And in our first past the post system, in many ridings 60 per cent or less of those who voted cast their ballot, against the winner, but their money goes to support them later anyway.

Giving all candidates the same amount of money for campaigns, and not allowing a penny more, would go a long way to stop the virtual "buying" of politicians in Ontario.

Parties and politicians could get off the endless fundraising circuit and concentrate on building the province.

Most important of all, they would finally be free to represent, clearly and without encumbrances, the people who sent them there - their constituents.

 

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : September 24, 2013

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