Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Political power for sale in Ontario and B.C.

Examples of, or at least media coverage of, priority access granted to top politicians in exchange for hard cash have proliferated in recent weeks and months, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia.
Usually, this comes in the form of exclusive, invitation-only dinners for corporate big-nobs, where the price of admission is a donation to the ruling provincial political party. In Ontario and B.C. at least, this method of selling preferred access to corporate lobbyists is entirely legal. So, for a bargain price of between $5,000 and $20,000 (depending on the exclusiveness of the affair), B.C. company heads can have one-on-one access to Premier Christy Clark, or to the Energy and Finance minsters of Ontario, or even Premier Wynne herself. Even more egregious, high-ranking Ontario cabinet ministers are routinely assigned individual annual fundraising quotas of up to $500,000, which they look to fill through just these kinds of events.
In provinces such as Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia, union and corporate donations to political parties is illegal. In one of its few democracy-promoting actions, even the Harper federal government banned such donations federally in 2006, although the individual annual donation limit of $1,525 per person per party is still rather high, and still slants political influence towards the rich. Ontario, B.C. and Saskatchewan are now the only Canadian jurisdictions of any size to allow union and corporate donations.
This should change now. Ontario's Kathleen Wynne has recently said that she will look to toughen Ontario's rules on political donations later this year, but probably fall short of an outright ban on union and corporate donations. Christy Clark has made no promises at all, and appears to see it all as just an integral part of the democratic process, although B.C.'s NDP opposition have vowed to ban union and corporate donations if they ever get back into power (as has Saskatchewan's NDP, even if their chances of election are much slimmer).
Many people are calling for a nationwide application of Quebec's rules, which ban corporate and union party donations completely, and limit individuals to donations of just $100 a year, with a further $100 allowed during elections. It is worth noting that Quebec brought in these donation rules after the Charbonneau Commission, in direct response to a series of political corruption scandals there.
Yes, I understand that, even were that to happen, corporations will probably find loopholes to exploit, as they always seem to do. But I think it has to be an important and necessary step in the right direction.

To her credit, responding to the intense political and media pressure in recent days, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has since announced that she will bring forward Ontario's legislation on the subject from the fall to the spring - i.e. very soon - and that it will probably involve the outright banning of political donations by corporations and unions. It is still not clear what individual donation limits might be set at (they are currently set at a ridiculously high $9,975 per year), and it seems unlikely that constituency associations, which have separate additional donation limits, will be included in the ban.
Ms. Wynne has also cancelled all her upcoming private fundraisers, and those of her cabinet minsters, and it looks like she really is taking the issue seriously, and not just concerned for the optics of the matter. I confess to have been sorely disappointed with the Ontario Premier, in spite of her early promise. But her reaction here has been spot on, and she presents a huge contrast to Christy Clark, who remains completely unapologetic and unrepentant on the issue.

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