Helping the Body (Politic) by Reforming Donations

Reforming Political Donations: Or How to Slow the Money Train

In Australia, the former prime minister Tony Abbott recently outlined a sweeping plan for reform of the country’s political donations system that would ban payments from unions, companies and overseas donors. “Obviously,” he said, “we don’t want influence buying, we don’t want subversion of our system. The best way to ensure the system is straight and clean is full transparency. The best way to have transparency is to have real-time disclosure, or near-to-real-time disclosure.”

This isn’t a debate unique to the Aussies. Canadians have been forced to engage with this issue in 2016 as well.

There are a number of dynamics at play. In Saskatchewan, discussion has revolved around its Western neighbour. With its oil wealth and booming population growth, Alberta has come to play a much larger role than ever in federal politics. Donations to federal parties in the province, for instance, have more than doubled in the past decade, from $2.3-million in 2004 to $5.5-million in 2014. This is significant.

The bulk of federal party contributions in Alberta still go to the Conservatives. Yet, opposition parties have gradually been gaining financial support in the province. In the 2008 election, for instance, the Conservatives captured 77 per cent of all money raised in Alberta. That had fallen to 66 per cent, or $3.6-million. The Liberals, on the other hand, raised more than $1.3-million in the province in 2014, well short of the Conservatives, but still double what Alberta gave to the Liberals as recently as 2010. The Money Train has carried all sorts of passengers.

Of course, the NDP has been less successful in the province. (Which has partially sparked debate amongst NDPers in Sask.) Even as the provincial New Democrats managed to topple more than 40 years of provincial Progressive Conservative rule in Alberta this year, there was minimal evidence that the federal NDP was winning financial support in the province. In 2014-2015, Mr. Mulcair’s party raised just $582,000 in Alberta. Not tons. For an excellent breakdown of the Money Train’s wending and weaving throughout Canada, see here.

Another question remains: what actually happens that folks donate? The answer, according to one source, rests with the media. Namely, the money goes to ads. “According to expenses reported by the NDP, Liberal and Conservative national campaigns last election, just over half of the money they spent went to advertising.”

“So much of what we learn about political parties now is through the media,” said Harold Jansen, chair of political science at the University of Lethbridge and a researcher on party finance. Political parties have fewer volunteers and fewer members, he noted, so fewer and fewer people have a personal connection to a party than they used to. That is made up by buying ads. “…media matters, and media costs money,” Jansen argued.

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More broadly, weak election finance laws can have a toxic effect on the political process. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development released a paper in April 2016 called Financing Democracy: Funding of Political Parties and the Risk of Policy Capture.

“If the financing of political parties and election campaigns is not adequately regulated, money may be a means for powerful special interests to exercise undue influence, and ‘capture’ the policy process,” says the report. This should come as no big surprise.

The surprise, arguably, is that it could happen in Saskatchewan. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Duncan Kinney suggested that Saskatchewan was a Wild West. And he traced some of Premier Brad Wall’s largest corporate donors:

  • Crescent Point: 126,923.67
  • Cenovus: 68,108.06
  • Encana: 50,556.52
  • PCL: 88,817.29
  • PennWest: 83,347.71
  • CAPP: 5,612.33
  • Canadian Energy Pipeline Association: 8,882.40

But the problem went much deeper than out-of-province donations.

Personally, I’m still working out my thoughts on how to maintain the health of the body politic. And I’ll be presenting more ideas about this in the future. Clearly, addressing political donations is a big part of democracy’s health. What are your thoughts?

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