There has been a lot of talk at the federal level over the last few years regarding the impact restricting donations from unions and corporations has had on the political process. In the short term, it has meant that Canada's Conservative Party has been much more successful than the Liberals or NDP at raising money.
Now let's turn our focus to the civic scene. According to the City of Toronto, it is against the law for any single contributor to give more than $2,500 in money, goods or services to a mayoralty candidate. In the case of council candidates, that limit is $750.
The rules differ from city to city in both Canada and the US, however many of them restrict the size of contributions that can be made to civic candidates.
One assumes the rules, regardless of which level of government, are being made in order to reduce the influence or perception of influence one donor may have on the election of a particular candidate or civic party.
In Vancouver, there are no restrictions on the amount that a single donor can make to a civic political party, or its candidates.
Take for example the $170,000 donation Mr. John Lefebvre made to Vision Vancouver during the 2005 campaign. LeFebvre, who made his fortune on an Internet money-transfer service for gamblers, likely made the single largest donation in Vancouver civic campaign history.
Although Lefebvre's donation to Vision Vancouver may have been the largest, there are scores of other single donations made to all civic parties and their candidates that range in the $10-20K range.
We should note that Vision Vancouver, the same party that previously accepted the $170K donation, subsequently brought forward a motion to council asking the previous NPA majority to place serious restrictions on campaign financing.
If implemented, it would have resulted in:
- Banning union and corporate donations to civic elector organizations and individual councillors;
- Continuous public disclosure of all donations
- Limits on campaign spending
Sources close to Mayor Robertson have told CityCaucus.com that he, and his Vision executive, are beginning to feel the heat regarding Councillor Raymond Louie's decision to not disclose his donors as previously promised. They say his worship is seriously considering re-introducing the campaign finance motion as a way to distance himself from his former leadership opponent. As previously noted, Robertson did fully disclose who contributed to his leadership bid.
So we ask, should cities like Vancouver who don't have any limits on donations impose restrictions on campaign contributions? Should there be limits on how much is received and from whom?
I guess the first question we need to ask is are we trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist? Having worked in politics for so many years, I can attest that I have yet to meet a single politician (of all political stripes) who made a single decision based on their donor list.
In Vancouver, I simply can't recall a time when our civic politicians were under investigation for anything related to their campaign contributors. Yes, they've been under investigation for numerous other indiscretions, but campaign contributions was not one of them.
So would placing limits on how much can be raised actually make any real difference on the decisions civic politicians ultimately make? Likely not. I would prefer that politicians spend their time ensuring that all monies raised and spent on civic campaigns are fully disclosed and completely transparent to the public.
That said, I think recent practice of accepting large donations in excess of $100K, or money from foreign (often American) interests, can serve to erode voter confidence in the system. That's probably why even President Barack Obama, fundraiser extraordinaire, is forbidden from accepting donations from foreigners, including Canadians.
It would be prudent for all political parties that currently live without any cap on donations to moderately dine out rather than go binge eating when it comes to fundraising. Otherwise, the unintended consequence will likely be a call from the media and voters for politicians to implement new, more restrictive rules.
However, before we go off implementing new rules, could we please ensure the current ones are being adhered to?
In Metro Vancouver, why are political parties refusing to 'continually disclose' who is giving them money to pay off old campaign debt? Why are some elected officials using 'grey' parts of the campaign finance legislation in order to refuse to release a list of their donors? Why are some quasi-political organizations helping civic candidates but not declaring their support as required by law?
First things first. We need to be able to properly enforce the current law before a single minute is spent dreaming up new campaign finance rules. If civic politicians are ignoring the current law, what's to say a new, more comprehensive campaign finance law will have any more effect?
If tougher restrictions work in Toronto, Philadelphia and San Francisco, I say bravo to them. For cities that choose not to impose similar restrictions, I say fair game. However, with the relaxed rules comes a huge obligation to ensure that every dollar raised to fund a politician's election campaign is disclosed and available for the public to review.