COLUMN: Some traditions won’t die

That Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberal Party holds expensive political fundraisers is surprising to no one. Nor is it surprising that the movers and shakers in the business and finance community attend said functions. Political fundraising of this ilk has been the mainstay of politics in Canada pre-dating Confederation. The fundraising efforts, and the actions of the political class afterwards even attributed to the formation of this country. This is politics as usual in Ontario. It exposes the seedy underbelly of politics, which is hard to look at and hard for politicians to ween themselves from.

Money makes the world go round. Money in the political work makes things happen. Friendly contracts, a helping yet legal hand nudging the right plan. Nothing outside the law, but bad optics when the light is shone on it. Provincial politics follows the same fundraising rule book as Sir John A. Macdonald did 150 years ago. Canada was built using this handwork. What worked then works now, only the stink has gotten worse.

For big business, spending over $5,000 per plate for a Liberal party event is chump change. For average Ontarians it is a lot of money. The Liberals don’t care though, as it is all to go to their big war chest for the 2018 election campaign. Great use of money, attack ads and yard sign feces. At least it will benefit the advertising and sign making industries in Ontario.

The optics are bad. Expensive gatherings like this show how detached the Liberals are from the average citizen. It reinforces the stereotype that Liberals are elite, selfish, and do not represent the people. The premier’s response to the issue after Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn prompted the latest outrage, is arrogant. She acknowledged there was issues and they’d look at fixing it, after the next election. Of course, because they need time to use the current system to raise enough money to beat the other parties. Then they’ll fix the system. Except they won’t.  These elitist gatherings work for raising money and cynicism in the political system. They show a lack of leadership and an unwillingness to change politics as usual.

Jean Chretien didn’t lack that. As a parting gift to Canadians, and a parting shot to old school politicos, he reformed the federal election finance laws. His landmark legislation changed campaign financing, limiting how much any person could give, and banning corporate and union donations. It put an effective leash on the outrageous spending and financing of federal political parties. Critics will challenge that the reforms Chretien enacted hurt the parties, and made the taxpayer have to foot the bill for a party or parties they did not support. Nonsense.

Chretien’s reforms took the direct money influence power brokers could wield or appear to wield out of the system. By doing so, it cleaned up federal politics to some extent. Look at the fundraising successes of the federal Conservative Party. A grassroots campaign of small donations from many people across the country. Go stateside and you can see the same with the fundraising efforts of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, where the average donation to his campaign is $27. How much influence is there from power brokers? Minimal at best. In both cases, they raised more money than their competitors with more openness and less need for plugging their noses.

The political campaign finance system needs reform in Ontario. There needs to be caps on what parties can do to raise money, accountability for how parties raise the money, and transparency on how they spend it and who influenced what. Adopting the federal government’s system would be a good first step. To end union and corporate donations — placing a hard cap on what individuals can donate. For real leadership, and real change, the ideal reform would be to remove third party political campaign advertising. Having a political party run a campaign, and union buddies running their own parallel campaign, makes for an unfair system for all. If you thought a progressive political leader who has strived for equality for all would be for a fair election finance system, you thought wrong.

The finance system for political parties in Ontario is broken. It is an antiquated financing method that reinforces the perception that politics is dirty; that it is about who you know or who can cut the biggest cheque. It is regressive, not progressive; ill-fitted for 2016. It would take real leadership for Premier Wynne to push to reform the system in time for the 2018 election. Can she ween herself and her party off the donations long enough to do so? It is a tradition that will not die.

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