How to fund democracy in Toronto

Should corporations and unions contribute cash to political campaigns?
Council considers banning this kind of donation in city elections
(Originally published Jan 16/09 for the Town Crier.)

I first wrote this  column six months ago, but I think it is even more timely now for three reasons.
Firstly, the city just came through a 39-day strike by two union locals 416 and 79 where there were all kinds of accusations that Mayor David Miller is too cosy with unions. (By the way, Miller took zero corporate or union cash contributions in the last election). This leads to the second reason why this opinion piece is relevant now, the next Toronto election is in 2010 and you can bet politicians’ connections to unions will be a very hot topic. And lastly, the city will be revisiting the issue of banning corporate and union donations in the fall and could make a decision BEFORE next year’s election. So onto my original column…

Getting elected isn’t cheap. Some of our midtown councillors spent over $60,000 a piece and Mayor David Miller almost $1.2 million on the latest campaign.
So it begs the question who is footing the bill? City council is wrestling, yet again, with a plan to ban corporate and union campaign contributions.The previous council voted in 2004 to ban this type of funding but didn’t have the power to implement the change for the 2006 election. Now it has the authority and is debating the idea again in time for next year’s election.
This issue is more about perception than reality. I don’t believe our politicians are corrupt and I haven’t spoken to anyone who claims making a donation of up to $750 per councillor leads to anything sinister. Even those who make corporate donations agree their money doesn’t buy them favourable treatment by council, says development lawyer Adam Brown. “It seems to have zero influence on (development) approvals,” says Brown, with Sherman Brown Dryer Karol. “It’s a red herring.”
He says it’s about being involved in the political process.
“I don’t think twice about giving a political contribution no matter who’s asking even if it’s someone who 99 percent of the timesays no (to developments).”

All contributions over $100 from unions, corporations or individuals are publicly disclosed on the city’s website so it’s all transparent. So it really comes down to wanting our reps to be beyond reproach. 
That said, there are several good reasons for reform, says political science professor Robert MacDermid. 
The York University professor’s most compelling argument is an individual who also owns a business can legally donate twice while an individual can do this just once, per politician. 
“That’s not fair,” he says. “So a certain class has special rights.”
In the last election, some midtown politicians decided to wait for new rules that apply to all candidates before giving up this type of donations. 
But others including councillors Michael Walker and Cliff Jenkins led the charge by funding their entire campaigns through individual donors.
Overall, most of the contributions to all Toronto politicians come from individuals, says MacDermid, who is researching this topic for 10 municipalities.
“Corporate donations to all city (of Toronto) candidates includinglosing candidates made up only 12.1 percent compared to 76.7 percent in Pickering,” he said Jan. 7 before his final report was released. 
Some councillors claim banning corporate and union donations will lead to less transparency because if members of these organizations donate as individuals it will be less apparent they belong to those associations.
The city’s Executive Committee has voted to defer a decision on this question until staff can come back with a report on election reforms this fall.
For my money, there are several reasons why I think it’s time to follow through with these changes. 
This city has already once voted to ban corporate and union donations. Now that council has this authority, it should follow through with its original intentions. 
Secondly, I agree it’s not a level playing field for a corporate boss to be able to give in her company’s name and again as an individual.
If we believe corporate or union contributions wield no influence on a politician, then let’s eliminate them. Sure, politicians will have to work harder to raise money through individuals alone, but it can be done. In the 2006 election, Mayor Miller managed it just fine. 
On the flip side, if these donations do sway decisions is this a practice we want to continue? 
If these donations are seen as a gentle way to twist some arms, there are plenty of other ways to do this. 
A company or union can lobby a politician directly or through a paid lobbyist, by writing a letter, e-mail or making a deputation stating why a politician should vote a certain way on policies. 
And lastly even if this election finance measure is just about perception, let’s face it, in politics perception matters.
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2 responses to “How to fund democracy in Toronto

  1. Let me know what you think. Should corporate and union donations to politicians be banned during election campaigns? kscheuer @sympatico.ca

  2. I will be updating this story.
    This fall council will debate whether to ban corporate and union donations in time for the 2010 elections, so I will write a new story then. I may write something this month, before that debate takes place.

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