It shouldn’t be noteworthy that the Premier of Ontario will be sharing some spaghetti with supporters this weekend, but somehow it is.
Doug Ford will be headlining a $25-a-plate pasta dinner in Kitchener on Friday, his first since loosening Kathleen Wynne’s overzealous restrictions on campaign financing.
Many of the 2016 changes implemented by the previous government, including the ban on corporate and union donations, have been maintained. Kitchener’s spaghetti-eaters can thank the removal of the most ridiculous provision, which barred candidates, ministers, and members of provincial parliament from attending fundraisers, however modest the ticket prices.
Wynne hardly had a mandate for reforming political financing. She only put the ban in place after her own cabinet ministers were caught selling access to deep-pocketed lobbyists, no doubt to make up the fundraising quota as high as $500,000, assigned by the Ontario Liberal Party.
But the remedy was like amputating an arm to deal with a hangnail.
During my oft-cited stint as a candidate, I couldn’t attend any event intended to raise money for my campaign. Anyone donating would be doing so to get me elected, but I couldn’t be there.
Even small barbeques that various riding associations had over the summer had to be structured so as to not even accidentally turn a profit if an MPP would be in attendance.
The most successful fundraisers have always been ones with a high-profile guest speaker, such as a cabinet minister or prominent. To get around the rules, riding associations would typically invite federal members of parliament or retired MPPs. But it was a needless hurdle. It’s hard to imagine how Christine Elliott or Monte McNaughton showing up at a fish fry was any threat to democracy.
The problems inherent in money’s intersection with politics have never been about the rules, but rather the intent of the people involved. Corruption doesn’t come from donors, but rather from the politicians who unscrupulously interact with them and their money.
I’m fairly confident that most people would agree politicians should avoid conflicts of interest, and certainly that it should remain illegal for MPPs to peddle influence with donors. The rules didn’t stop this.
Politicians could still sit down with donors and potential donors one-on-one, or even attend a small group gathering to which wealthy people bring their chequebooks. Such events simply couldn’t be advertised.
This means the interactions were happening in darkness rather than light, which hardly gives us a more transparent province.
It’s undeniable that personal appeals are the most effective way for candidates to fundraise. I did this with numerous people, and was able to raise decent amounts of money for my campaign as a result.
There would have been nothing stopping me from selling access to myself (though I’m sure I’d be embarrassed to learn how low the going rate was.)
The rules were illusory at best.
Some would argue this means the guidelines didn’t go far enough. Though the point here is that the rules don’t and can’t address the root of political money problems — the moral compasses lacking in some people in the political space.
Some people view political money as inherently dirty, but it’s really just another way for people to express support for a politician’s ideals, much like voting is.
When corporate donations were allowed, at least Ontarians could see which companies are backing which parties. That transparency allowed people to challenge politicians to see if anything untoward was happening.
People vote in their self-interests and often donate in them as well. I fail to see the difference between a Norfolk County man donating to a politician who’s promised tax cuts and a Bay St. green energy executive donating to a politician who supports green energy policies.
It is only suspect when the influence and money are transactional.
But let’s be real, these transactions aren’t taking place at spaghetti dinners and clambakes.
This hasn’t stopped the hysterical response to the Ford government’s changes, however.
Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn said the rollback would “would reopen the door to big money from big business (and big labour), while hobbling competing parties. It is sneaky, it is duplicitous, it is anti-democratic.”
Oddly, Cohn seemed to take issue mostly with the $2.71 per vote subsidy parties receive, which puts millions of dollars into party coffers at taxpayer expense. Ford is getting rid of this, which stands to hurt the Progressive Conservatives most, because they got the most votes in last year’s election.
The rules apply across the board. Parties need to pay their own way, and do so transparently.
Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.
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