How did Premier Kathleen Wynne emerge victorious in June 2014 in an election the Liberals seemed destined to lose?
It’s a complicated question to be sure. Mistakes by the opposition parties certainly helped. But at the most basic level, nearly 40 per cent of voters were prepared to hold their noses at the government’s previous decisions about gas plant cancellations, eHealth, Ornge, and wind turbines because they saw in Wynne someone whose personal decency shone through, whose heart seemed to be in the right place, and who conducted herself with considerable integrity.
I suspect the reason Wynne is now prepared to reform Ontario’s political fundraising system is because the status quo was chipping away at her brand of being a trustworthy pair of “safe hands,” as she once put it, to run Queen’s Park.
The optics of ministers begging for dollars from stakeholders, then ruling on issues facing those stakeholders, never did pass the stink test. For years, Wynne has denied that was a problem, but apparently even she now acknowledges the current system doesn't pass muster.
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The next question: if the status quo is no good, what do we replace it with? And how do we allow political parties to raise the money they need to operate, while giving the public confidence that the system is kosher?
The obvious alternative is the current federal system, which bans corporate and union donations, but even that is no panacea.
Companies can still make donations in their employees’ names. And what employee would be brave enough to object, knowing their job could be adversely affected by doing so?
Furthermore, would Wynne really be prepared to shut down the third-party funders, which have been so integral to the Liberals’ success over the years? Groups such as the Working Families Coalition, an amalgam of union groups, have raised millions of dollars for the Liberals. They’ve been a legal loophole and not-so-secret weapon, which none of the other parties has been able to match, giving the governing side a huge advantage during election campaigns.
Mississauga-Streetsville’s Bob Delaney has been an eloquent voice on this issue. While he’s never been in cabinet during his 12 years as a Liberal MPP at Queen’s Park (and thus hasn’t faced the pressure to meet fundraising quotas or feel conflicted about stakeholder donations), he is still concerned about how members and parties will raise the money they need to serve their constituents and compete effectively during election campaigns.
Delaney points out Ontario ridings are gigantic by North American standards. He says that by population, Ontario ridings are about:
- 40 times the size of a P.E.I. riding
- 10 times the size of ridings in the rest of the Atlantic provinces
- Eight times the size of a Manitoba or Saskatchewan riding
- Triple the size of a B.C. or Alberta riding
- Double the size of a Quebec riding;
Given that reality, Delaney says, it’s impossible for candidates to reach all their potential electors by door-knocking during campaigns, as there are on average 120,000 people in each riding. The north, with smaller populations per riding, has other challenges, with some constituents only accessible by flying to their communities.
“You have to use money to reach voters to a greater extent in Ontario because of our size,” Delaney says. “The federal system is neither fair nor transparent, and was changed for political rather than practical or ethical reasons.”
He goes on to say the current system in Ontario is transparent: we know who gives what to whom. But there is a growing consensus that it doesn’t fly with the public, as even ex-Liberal cabinet ministers are now acknowledging.
Delaney is right when, referring to a Toronto Star series last week, he says: “What changes may be needed should not be driven by the expediency of reacting to a front page story based on the writer’s own assertions, and should be done after serious study rather than reflexive reactions.”
Last week, I wrote about how four decades ago premier Bill Davis appointed a special tri-partisan commission to come up with a better system, and it did. That is one option. Delaney would like to see an all-party legislative committee hold hearings, hear evidence, call witnesses, and examine other systems, to ensure the cure isn’t worse than the disease.
An ex-Tory cabinet minister, after seeing our contributions to this issue on TVO.org, emailed me to express other concerns.
“My big worry on this is that the government will put in all kinds of restrictions but not deal with the issue of the third party type groups, gambling that the public sector unions will stay loyal to them,” the former minister wrote. “This is a critical area where you need to get the balance right. You can’t put all kinds of restrictions on political parties and then let the interest groups have free rein.”
The former Mike Harris-era minister argues for a non-partisan commission that could rewrite the rules, rather than having “some smart, young political operatives/issue managers in the premier’s office trying to put out a short-term political fire for the premier. [That] is not the way to amend the system.”
The premier has made her decision. The much-disrespected current system will be changed. When and how are now the next key decisions. On Sunday afternoon, the premier wrote to opposition leaders Patrick Brown and Andrea Horwath, inviting them to meet with her “within the next few days” to discuss these matters. We’ll see whether the spirit of multi-partisanship goes beyond that.
Image credit: Facebook.com/WynneFans