Group calls on provinces to stop unethical political fundraising practices
OTTAWA - Today, Democracy Watch called on the Ontario and B.C. ethics commissioners, and ethics commissioners across the country, to do their jobs properly by issuing rulings prohibiting politicians from taking part in private fundraising events because they violate the rules in conflict-of-interest laws across Canada that prohibit politicians from accepting gifts connected with their positions. The request has been sent to every ethics commissioner in Canada (federal, provincial and territorial).
“Big donations made at private fundraising events where the politician is essentially selling access to themselves are a clear violation of conflict-of-interest laws that prohibit politicians across Canada from accepting gifts connected with their positions,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch and Visiting Professor and LL.M. candidate at the University of Ottawa. “If ethics commissioners across Canada don’t issue rulings that these unethical fundraising events are illegal, they will not only be negligently ignoring the law they will also be approving corrupting relationships between donors and politicians.”
Democracy Watch also called on all ethics commissioners to investigate whether such events have occurred, and if they have to obtain and release the list of donors to the events, and to monitor all policy-making processes that affect the donors to ensure no preferential treatment occurs.
Democracy Watch is not claiming that all fundraising events are illegal -- just high-priced, exclusive events where politicians sell access to themselves in return for a donation, as the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have recently revealed are happening frequently in Ontario and B.C. (and they happen across the country at all levels of government). Low-priced, large, public events at which no one gets special access to the politician are clearly legal under the conflict-of-interest laws because the donation is not made to gain access to the politician.
The federal, provincial and territorial conflict-of-interest laws all have the same provision that says politicians cannot accept any gift or benefit “directly or indirectly” connected to their position or “that might reasonably be seen to be given to influence” them (for example, see Ontario’s rule here and B.C.’s rule here). While the donations go to a party or riding association, access to the politician is part of the ticket price for these exclusive events (which connects the donation to their position as a politician); the politician takes part in directing the spending of the money (as the party leader or local politician for the riding association), and; at least some of the donated money is spent on the politician’s re-election campaign. As a result, the politician is receiving part of a donation made because the politician attended an event – and therefore the politician is receiving an illegal gift.
“Any politician who claims that the donations are funnelled to a party or riding association before they are used for the politician’s election campaign, and therefore selling access to themselves is fine, is hiding behind a corrupt façade,” said Conacher. “Any ethics commissioner with integrity will end this unethical charade by issuing a ruling that exclusive, high-priced fundraising events violate the rule that prohibits receiving gifts that is in every conflict of interest law across Canada.”
Democracy Watch also called on governments across the country to make the same world-leading changes to their political donation systems (federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal in each province and territory) as Quebec made in 2013, along with other key changes.
Political finance systems across Canada, other than Quebec’s provincial system, are all undemocratic in various ways. B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and the Yukon are the worst as they allow unlimited donations from corporations, unions and other organizations, and individuals, even if they are not located in or don't live in the jurisdiction. Saskatchewan is almost as bad, with the only difference being that individual donors have to be a Canadian citizen.
Ontario, New Brunswick, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are also almost as bad because they allow undemocratically high donations from corporations, unions and organizations (and New Brunswick allows those donations to come from outside the province).
And while the federal government, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have banned corporate and union donations, they still allow undemocratically high donations that only wealthy people can afford. As Quebec’s corruption scandal showed, these high donation limits facilitate corporations and unions funneling donations through their executives and/or employees.
“Any political party that refuses to make these changes is essentially admitting they are up for sale and that they approve of the corrupt best-government-money-can-buy approach to politics,” said Conacher.
The key changes that must be made across Canada to democratize political finance systems are as follows:
- a ban on donations by corporations, unions and other organizations (Quebec enacted such a ban in the late 1970s);
- a limit on annual donations by individuals to each party of $100-200 annually (Quebec’s limit is $100);
- a ban on donations from individuals who do not live in the jurisdiction;
- a prohibition on loans to political parties, riding associations and candidates, except from a public fund (with loans limited to the average annual amount of donations received during the previous two years)
- a limit on spending during campaigns by parties, nomination race and election candidates, third party interest groups, and candidates in party leadership races (Alberta and the Yukon have no limits at all; only the federal government, B.C., Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec limit third party spending, and; no jurisdictions have limits on party leadership race spending);
- disclosure of all donations and gifts of money, property, services and volunteer labour given to any politician, nomination race, election or party leadership candidate, including the identity of the donor’s employer, and board and executive affiliations;
- a base amount of annual public funding for parties based on each vote received during the last election (which Quebec has -- no more than $1 per vote, with a portion required to be shared with riding associations);
- annual public funding for parties matching the first $100,000-$200,000 raised (which Quebec has);
- public funding for candidates matching the first $20,000 raised (which Quebec has), and;
- a requirement that election, donation and ethics watchdogs conduct annual random audits to ensure all the rules are being followed by everyone.
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