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Fundraising reforms

Apr 11, 2016

Hamilton councillors are once again being forced to consider banning donations from their main financial backers. The wave of change heading to city hall is being driven by new provincial initiatives, debates in other cities, blunt editorials, and yet another damning study on indicating developer donations are buying political influence.

Premier Wynne’s promise to phase out corporate and union donations to provincial candidates is getting the main attention after revelations of fundraising quotas and their achievement through very expensive private meals with cabinet ministers. But new provincial rules announced last week make clear that municipal election financing is also going to be altered by Queen’s Park.

“The government is proposing changes to ensure that rules for municipal elections are consistent with transparent, accountable, fair and modern election finance practices,” declared an April 4 statement from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing office of Ted McMeekin. “Some examples include giving all municipalities the option to ban corporate and union donations and setting clear spending limits on post-campaign spending on gifts and parties. Changes to spending limits for campaign finance would be set out in a regulation.”

While the statement says banning corporate and union donations will be optional, it also says the rules must be consistent with “fair and modern finance practices” and it’s clear what Premier Wynne thinks those are. A ban on those financial contributions has also now been strongly endorsed by Canada’s two largest newspapers – the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail and has councillors in Barrie and Orillia and York Region already debating changing the rules in their cities.

That’s been spurred by a study of election financing in 2014 in 13 municipalities around Lake Simcoe, an area where development pressure is intense. It found that candidates who took developer monies were twice as likely to get elected, that development monies made up over half of all corporate donations, and that far more development donations occurred in municipalities with high levels of development.

“Furthermore, 73% of all of the money from the development industry came from outside the municipality,” says the study. “This suggests an extraordinary level of influence on local politics by those who live elsewhere.”

The study was organized by Campaign Fairness whose co-founder, environmental lawyer David Donnelly is praising the latest provincial commitments.

 “Now Ontario is on its way to catching up with modern election practices,” says Donnelly. “Four provinces, the City of Toronto, and Canadian federal elections all prohibit corporate and union contributions.”

The Globe and Mail published an article by the lead author of the study and followed up with an editorial declaring that “democracy is about people, not limited liability companies and giant bargaining units. Corporations and unions shouldn’t be able to use massive donations to tilt an election, or to buy exclusive access to government.” The Toronto Star also hailed the change in direction.

Most Hamilton councillors rely very heavily on corporate and union donations which made up more than 80 percent of the election gifts reported by Chad Collins and Terry Whitehead. Seven other winners in 2014 including Mayor Eisenberger got the majority of their funds from these sources. The others were Tom Jackson, Jason Farr, Maria Pearson, Scott Duvall, Sam Merulla and Lloyd Ferguson.

Reliance on corporate and union monies declined in 2010 in the wake of the illegal donations scandal surrounding former Mayor Larry DiIanni, but the only incumbent who relied entirely on individual donations in the last election was Brenda Johnson.

Details on the new rules respecting post-election parties and gift card distribution haven’t been released yet by the province, but will likely affect Hamilton municipal politicians. Tom Jackson reported spending over $24,000 on volunteer appreciation and Lloyd Ferguson racked up more than $12,000. Sam Merulla and Maria Pearson also poured more than $4500 each into these victory celebrations. 

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