- Analysis & Opinion
BREAKING: The province has recently announced they’re considering a ban on corporate and union donations to municipal campaigns, as part of a larger package of election reforms. I support this, as it ensures confidence for residents that elected officials represent them, not big donors, and creates a level playing field for all candidates.
I recently wrote about this issue in an article about Bernie Sanders, who is currently running to be the Democratic candidate for U.S. president. What Sanders says about getting money out of politics is as relevant for Burlington, Vermont, where he once served as mayor, as it is for Burlington Ontario.
Bernie Sanders has one key message: get big money out of politics. The former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. President in this fall’s election, recognizes that money has a way of buying influence of decision makers, to act in ways that aren’t always in the public’s best interests.
Bernie’s not for sale. It’s a powerful message. (Donald Trump, who is largely self-financing his race for the Republican presidential nomination, also says he’s not for sale. That may partly explain his success to date – though the balance of his campaign is toxic and divisive. A My Take for another time).
Bernie’s message is as relevant for Burlington, Vermont and the rest of the U.S. as it is for Burlington, Ontario, Canada, where I serve as a city councillor.
Our province has been rocked recently by revelations that cabinet ministers are given fundraising targets – as high as $500,000 per year for high profile ministries like Finance and Health.
Cabinet ministers are raising money at evening fundraisers from the very organizations they’re called upon to regulate the next afternoon in the legislature.
This screams “conflict of interest” faster than you can say “write me a cheque.”
And former ministers have already raised the alarm bell. Former Attorney General John Gerretsen told the Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Conn he “hated” the whole aspect of fundraising.
“If a major issue comes up, and you have been funded by lobbyists on behalf of any kind of industry, you’re going to be affected by that . . . it’s human nature.”
Former Liberal finance minister Dwight Duncan told Regg Conn: “I don’t care how honest you are, I don’t care how good your intentions are. If someone gives you money, it’s going to influence your view, because we’re only human.”
One wishes they had pushed harder for change while they were still in office and had the power to make something happen. Nevertheless, better late than never. I’m grateful they’ve stepped up now. Their comments help diffuse the naysayers who will continue to maintain that they can receive money with one hand and impartially make decisions with the other.
Their comments have also helped push the Liberal government into action sooner rather than later to follow the lead of others who have already banned corporate and union donations: the federal government (2006), four provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia ) and the City of Toronto (2009).
The Liberals have said they will introduce legislation in June to ban union and corporate donations to provincial campaigns, after first denying there was a problem, then saying they would make changes but likely not in time for the 2018 election, then promising to introduce changes in the fall. They responded to public pressure and heeded the words of former cabinet ministers on the need to act now. This is democracy in action.
The province should now extend that ban to municipalities.
Legislation introduced in April (Bill 181) would allow municipalities to choose whether or not to voluntarily ban corporate and union donations. That doesn’t go far enough. If we accept the principle that money buys influence there shouldn’t be an opt-out.
If it’s left to municipalities, I’ll push for a bylaw at Burlington council.
Why does this matter?
Municipalities decide land use planning – probably the most important thing we do because of its impact on building cities where people want to live (or don’t). We decide how much parkland there is, where tall buildings go – and don’t – how we protect our older neighbourhoods, preserve heritage, protect the Green Belt, and more.
There is increasing pressure for housing developments with more height and density throughout the GTA. That amps up the pressure for “anything goes,” with threats to take an application to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) if the city doesn’t cave in to demands.
According to the Star’s Regg Conn, cabinet sources who must deal with corporate donors say “their gravest concern is the influence of property developers, notably those seeking changes to the boundaries of the Green Belt or making inappropriate demands at both the provincial and municipal levels.” A study by York University political scientist Robert MacDermid showed that “developers and related donors funded 43 per cent of the 2006 election in the regions of Halton, Peel, York and Durham.”
Writes Conn: “In a separate study from 2004 to 2011, MacDermid found that Ontario’s three major parties raised more than $162 million, with nearly 40 per cent coming from corporations and another 5 per cent from unions. The Liberals raised a disproportionate 50 per cent of their $72 million from corporations — mostly developers and the wider development industry, followed by big banks and energy firms.”
Residents need to know their elected officials represent them, not development interests or other corporate interests. That’s why we need to ban all corporate and union donations.
Since my first municipal election in 2006, I’ve voluntarily refused to take campaign contributions from developers. But that hasn’t stopped them from sending donations.
In the 2014 election, a cheque from a major local developer for the maximum $750 donation arrived, unsolicited, at my office at City Hall. I presume each member of council got one. I returned mine unopened.
“I’m returning this so that you’ll know that if I vote in favour of one of your projects, it’s because I believe in it,” I wrote on the outside of the envelope.
Anyone who denies that a cheque to your campaign compromises your ability to make impartial decisions is either wilfully blind or wilfully ignorant. Ask yourself why a developer would send cheques to members of council – even those who don’t want them. This didn’t happen before I was elected.
When money arrives without lifting a finger to get it, it’s that much harder to say “no thank you,” and that much easier to convince yourself you’re above influence.
Developers, corporate executives, union leaders – these are business people – they don’t spend money unless they believe there’s value in the investment. I don’t buy the argument about just wanting to “participate in democracy.” Everyone can do that by simply casting a vote (and I wish more residents would), or volunteering in a campaign, or making a personal donation.
Saying no to campaign contributions from developers at the municipal level was a no-brainer for me.
But I’ve learned the hard way how easy it is to justify saying “yes” to corporate donations – then feeling the pressure that comes later. An outright ban protects candidates and the public alike.
In the 2014 election, I received a cheque for $750, and another for $500, both unsolicited, both from local businesses, neither in the development industry. I cashed them, after ensuring they had no business before council for a decision. However, I returned the larger cheque shortly afterward when further digging made it clear a matter involving them was coming to council, post-election.
I thought I was in the clear on the second donation, but shortly after the election a matter arose that required my involvement. Though I would have helped this company anyway, it tainted the interaction with the whiff of quid pro quo.
There was a reason these unsolicited donations arrived – these businesses knew they would eventually want my help, or my vote at council. If they are banned from donating, there’s no expectation of preferential treatment, only the usual assistance they would get from their elected official that everyone is entitled to receive.
One final story: When I ran provincially in 2007, our campaign accepted money from the development industry. I wouldn’t be making direct decisions on development as an MPP, I reasoned, as that was a municipal matter, and disputes are adjudicated by an independent tribunal – the Ontario Municipal Board.
I’d make a different decision today if I was running provincially, based on my years on council overseeing development applications with the constant threat that the provincially appointed OMB will just give developers what they want. I’m a firm advocate in reform or abolition of the OMB – something the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has committed to review. I’ll be joining a group of councillors from across the GTA at a Municipal Summit May 14 working together for OMB reform. I’ve also signed a petition seeking OMB reform – you can too: Petition for OMB reform
More on OMB reform in a future My Take.
As the province is discovering, it’s tough to reform what you’re taking money from. It’s tough to make decisions in the public interest when corporate interests that funded your campaign – this one, the last one, the next one – are pushing you in a different direction. You may feel your political future depends on these donations.
It doesn’t have to. That’s why we need a ban at both the provincial and municipal level on corporate and union donations.
Eliminating these donations – and the inevitable pressure that comes with them – preserves the integrity of elected decision-making, both in appearance and in fact. Both are important. The first retains public trust, the second the public’s best interests.
I’ve been asked if I would accept a personal donation from the head of a corporation, development organization or union. I haven’t accepted personal donations from developers in the past (to my knowledge). But extending a ban to anyone who works at a corporation or union would mean none of us could contribute. Most of us work for someone. And it makes a difference if someone is donating as an individual on their own behalf rather than their corporation or union.
More important, though, as it stands now corporations/unions can double or triple contribute – first in the name of the corporation, then as an individual, then possibly buy a table at an event so long as tickets are each $100 or less – there’s no requirement to record names of donors less than $100. There are supposed to be rules to prevent this double and triple dipping, but it’s tough to control and there’s little transparency for the public. Banning donations from corporations and unions altogether would prevent these multiple contributions.
The end goal is a level playing field where candidates and parties have to appeal to the general public – you and me, the majority of us people of average financial means – to fund campaigns. Candidates would need lots of individuals giving small amounts to fund a provincial campaign or even a municipal campaign.
That means creating a platform and policies that appeal to the hearts and minds of a majority of residents. That’s a good thing. That’s democracy at its best.
And that’s why Burlington, VT’s Bernie Sanders is doing so well, against all odds, after the establishment has counted him out on numerous occasions and the polls showed him losing (incorrectly). He’s won eight of the last nine contests, and heads to a crucial primary in his hometown of New York this week (he’s from Brooklyn).
The average donation to Sanders’ campaign is $27, from more than 2 million contributors. He has surpassed the record for number of individual donors to a campaign, even beating President Barack Obama’s record. That’s democracy. That’s an election funded by the people. His fundraising letters are signed “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (not the billionaires)”
Says Sanders: “Why do they make millions of dollars of campaign contributions? They expect to get something. Everybody knows that… Now the Secretary (Hilary Clinton) says it doesn’t influence her. Well, that’s what every politician says who gets money from special interest.”
Sanders can’t be bought. It’s the main reason I voted for him, as a dual U.S./Canadian citizen, alongside 69% of other Democrats Abroad, who sent Sanders 9 delegates to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s 4.
Though we Canadians may have once thought big money buying elections is only a problem in the U.S., we now know different. We’ve got to clean up our own act in Burlington, Ontario, and the rest of the province.
For the sake of democracy, it’s time to end big money in our elections, and ban union and corporate donations both provincially and municipally.
What’s your take? Should the province ban union and corporate donations provincially? Municipally? If the province leaves cities the option, should Burlington pass our own bylaw to ban union and corporate donations? Is it okay to accept personal donations from heads of corporations or unions? Leave a comment below, or email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org
About My Take:
For 11 years, I wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Sun on ethics, politics, the 905 and anything else worth discussing. Many of you have told me you miss it. I miss writing it, and hearing from you. So I’ve launched the My Take column, to allow us to discuss a broader range of topics, with a focus on issues of interest or relevance to residents here in Burlington. The column borrows its title from My Take, a standard feature in my newsletter and web pages, letting you know where I stand on issues and how I voted (or will vote). Many of you have said that’s your favourite part, and often solicit My Take on an issue that you care about. It’s one of the reasons I’ve launched this My Take column. As always, I’m interested in hearing from you. Leave Your Take on My Take below or by email.