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Former elections chief urges Ontario to keep per-vote subsidy

Province should make subsidies permanent for political parties as part of fundraising reforms, says Canada’s former chief electoral officer. “Healthy parties are good for democracy,” said Jean-Pierre Kingsley, referring to the $2.26-per-vote stipend for the parties.
July 11, 2016
By Robert Benzie

Ontario should make per-vote subsidies permanent for political parties as part of forthcoming fundraising reforms, says Canada’s former chief electoral officer.

Testifying on Monday before a legislative committee examining the new rules triggered by a Star probe, Jean-Pierre Kingsley urged MPPs not to phase out the planned payments to parties.

“It should be permanent. Healthy parties are good for democracy,” said Kingsley, referring to the $2.26-per-vote stipend for the parties.

An all-party committee is holding hearings on legislation designed to fix Ontario’s lax political fundraising rules, including a ban on corporate and union donations, a cut in the annual contribution limit for individuals to $1,550 from $9,975 a year, and new curbs on advertising by so-called third-party groups.

As part of the reforms announced by Premier Kathleen Wynne - after the Star revealed Liberal ministers had secret annual fundraising targets of up to $500,000 apiece they are expected to collect - there will be a per-vote subsidy for parties.

Under that measure, which would be based on the 2014 election results, the Liberals would each year receive $4,212,581, the Tories $3,408,251, the New Democrats $2,587,297, and the Green Party $525,531.

But, as happened federally when Ottawa eliminated corporate and union donations, the public funding would be gradually reduced before being phased out.

Kingsley, who was in charge of Elections Canada from 1990 until 2007, including when the federal fundraising rules were tightened, urged Ontario to retain the per-vote payments.

“This would change political party life in . . . Ontario because it would give political parties a base on which they can count for four years after an election. Right now, they don’t know,” he said.

“We need political parties to be thinking not only about the next campaign - even though that’s essential - but what are we going to say in the next campaign.”

That would enable parties across the political spectrum to focus their efforts on democracy more than on fundraising.

“If a political party is deprived of monies . . . then its policy-making work is not being done. It’s not being done well (with) much fewer people, much (less) effort,” said Kingsley.

“This is why I see an advantage to a form of permanent funding and the per-vote subsidy happens to be the one that I think is good at this time.”

Kingsley also suggested some loopholes in the new law could also be tightened such as including “travel, research and polling as expenditures” under the new spending limits for political parties and more controls over third-party spending before and during elections.

Progressive Conservative MPP Randy Hillier (Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington) said he is concerned about parties exploiting any ambiguities in the upcoming law.

“We want to make sure the loopholes and back doors are closed and there will not be abuses down the road as much as possible,” said Hillier

New Democrat MPP Catherine Fife (Kitchener-Waterloo) said she is worried about “the imbalance of power” between the Liberals, who can unleash government advertising campaigns before an election, and issues-based advocacy groups who will be limited on what they can spend.

“The groups that are coming forward, who have concerns on autism or environmental issues or wind farms (feel) . . . this piece of legislation severely restricts those voices and their ability to publicly criticize the government through advertising,” said Fife.

But government House leader Yasir Naqvi’s office said the legislation is building upon “broad consensus across party lines on what needs to be done to strengthen and modernize election financing rules.”

“That’s why we are moving forward with an open, transparent and credible process that includes engaging opposition parties, experts and the general public every step of the way,” said Kyle Richardson, a Naqvi aide.