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How to buy an election

The Municipal Elections Modernization Act is now law. Unfortunately, key parts of it have not been thought through.

The new ban on corporate and union donations now extends to municipal elections – which are not contested by the political parties. Under the rules as they stand, there is no cap whatsoever on the amount of money an individual candidate can donate to his or her own campaign provided they are self funded. 

But campaign spending caps still apply. *

Take the case of the Chair of York Region. If the post were to be directly elected by the voters at large in the next Regional election in 2018, candidates would face a campaign spending cap of around around $650,000.

By then, the electorate is expected to be about 750,000. A conventional campaign – using advertising media and leaflets – would cost a small fortune to reach such a huge number of voters. A wealthy candidate could buy the election, financially carpet bombing others of more modest means.

The new Minister of Housing, Newmarket-Aurora MPP Chris Ballard, has been pushing for the direct election of the Chair of York Region for years. The position which is worth over $200,000 a year is currently held by the jovial Wayne Emmerson who got the job in 2014 on a 16-4 vote of members of the Regional Council.

But now that Ballard is a Minister the future of his Private Member’s Bill (Bill 42) is uncertain.

(For the Bill to survive and become law Ballard needs to persuade (a) another MPP to take over his Bill and become its sponsor and (b) persuade Government business managers to bring forward a motion to allow this to happen and (c) timetable its return to the floor of the House and vote it into law. This could be done in a matter of moments. Bill 42 has already completed its Committee Stage.)

When I ask Ballard how individual candidates for Regional Chair can reasonably be expected to raise the huge sums of money needed to fight a half-decent campaign he floats the idea of a “rebate programme” where campaign contributions to candidates for municipal office are offset in some way. I am unsure how this may work out in practice.

Chris Ballard tells me:

"Thank you for your questions, in the past few weeks following the introduction of Bill 181 and during the Standing Committee process, the government has heard from a number of individuals and organizations across Ontario about the proposed Municipal Elections Modernization Act, 2016 about concerns with corporate and union donations to candidates for municipal council.

To create an even playing field for all candidates, the government proposed amendments to the Bill that ban corporate and union contributions to council candidates in all Ontario municipalities.  The ban would also apply to contributions to school board trustee candidates. By making the ban on corporate and union donations mandatory for all municipalities in Ontario, the government is working to balance the interests of candidates and citizens.

Acknowledging the absence of political parties operating at the municipal level, municipal candidates are able to self-fund without a cap on how much they may contribute to their own campaigns. Candidates running for Councillor in the City of Toronto have done so with a $750 contribution limit (and $5,000 aggregate limit) with the ban on union and corporate contributions for the last two municipal election cycles. 

Bill 181 does not propose a provincial subsidy for municipal candidates, however, municipalities may choose to establish a rebate program for contributions to municipal candidates and you may wish to contact your municipality directly to ask about local programs and whether any changes are being contemplated."

I am in touch with York Region to see what they have to say.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Professor Robert MacDermid from York University and a leading expert on campaign finance told the Committee examining Bill 181 on 5 May 2016 that self-funding should be done away with:

I recommend that we replace the limit on the size of contributions that candidates and their spouses can make to their own campaigns. Municipal politics in Ontario are unusual. It’s unlike provincial or federal politics, where candidates can only give what other citizens can give. This allowance to allow people to self-fund their campaigns—sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars—simply prolongs the kind of economic inequality that exists in the system. It allows rich people an opportunity to run where poor people cannot. Self-funding needs to be removed from the bill. People have to rely, as I said, on small contributions from a broad base of people. Self-funding is also an issue because it opens the door to getting around the rules about contributions by illegally allowing somebody to give a cheque or give money to a candidate who can then give the money in their own name rather than having to give it obviously. I think that’s probably something that goes on.

* This blog was amended on 17 June 2016 Newmarket's Town Clerk, Andrew Brouwer, helpfully reminds me that while a candidate who is self funded does not have a campaign contribution limit, each office has a maximum campaign expense limit which is prescribed by the Act. In a report to York Region on 18 February 2016, it was put this way:

"Campaign spending limits are prescribed by the Municipal Elections Act using a formula based on the number of eligible electors. For a head of council, the spending limit is $7,500 plus $0.85 per eligible elector. Based on 2014 statistics, a candidate in a Region-wide election for the Regional Chair would have a spending limit close to $600,000. Based on population projections the spending limit could be in excess of $650,000."


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