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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Tracking who pays for elections

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Rob MacDermid is a political science professor at York University. His Funding City Politics report was released in January 2009 by the Centre for Social Justice and VoteToronto.

Spacing: How did election financing in Toronto in 2006 compare to other cities?

MacDermid: In the City of Toronto, there were eight or nine candidates that ran without getting corporate funding — like councillors Kyle Rae, Cliff Jenkins, Joe Mihevc, and of course Mayor Miller. That has really helped reduce the amount of corporate influence in campaigns in the City of Toronto. Also, Toronto offered a rebate program which gave citizens back a portion of their contributions they made to candidates. That's an incentive for candidates to go out and find money from individuals, and that's in fact what more and more candidates in Toronto do. Toronto also asked for the right to ban corporate and trade contributions, and the Province gave them the power to do so — and right now the City is in the process of getting to a final vote in front of council, which may not be until the fall. In so many ways Toronto is ahead in practice — like Adam Vaughan making a statement that he wouldn't accept any corporate campaign contributions and, along with Mayor Miller, predisclosing his funding sources. In other words, they told citizens before the election where they got their funding from. Toronto is also ahead because it has so much more diverse interest and so much more participation, whereas the turnout is much lower in the other surrounding municipalities. The diversity of political organizations in the City of Toronto make politics much more diverse.

Spacing: To what extent are politicians influenced by their finance campaign contributions?

MacDermid: I don't believe that $750, which is the maximum contribution to candidates, can ever change the opinion of an elected councillor. However, that's not really what we're talking about here. It's about many contributions from developers, or from a developer, and we're also talking about developers who seek out candidates who already have a favourable attitude towards development. Many councillors have a background in the development industry or in fact are married to developers, and some of them might be developers themselves. There has been a historical pattern with what these developers do to scout these people out and then run them for office. They help build them a profile, then they run them for office — and of course those people, who already have a favourable attitude towards development, are most likely to vote for development, not only for a single developer but also for development in general. I think that's how the influence works rather than the idea that you could somehow buy influence with a $750 contribution.

Spacing: Do you think it's likely that legislation will be enacted that alters the way municipal elections are funded?

MacDermid: I am not hopeful on that and the reason is the provincial government ultimately has the authority to change Ontario's Municipal Election Act, and contributions from corporations and trade unions are still permitted in Ontario at the provincial level. But at the federal level they've been banned, and in several other provinces as well. It's hard to imagine that the Ontario government would agree to ban corporations to municipal councillors while maintaining that sort of funding for themselves.

Spacing: Do you believe politicians should have a limit on donations for their own campaign?

MacDermid: We should limit what candidates should contribute to their own campaign. Many people will not know that at the provincial and federal levels, candidates can contribute no more than any other citizen can contribute. The levels are the same between candidate and citizen alike. It's only at the municipal level where there is no limit on how much a candidate can contribute. In fact, when you look at the funding sources in some municipalities, more money went to candidates from the candidates themselves than individual citizens. For instance, in Ajax, almost half the money came from the candidates themselves.

Spacing: Why should real time donations be listed on candidate's websites?

MacDermid: We need disclosure. That's another place where the City of Toronto is a long way ahead. They've now put onto their own website most of the financial statements of candidates, but you can also see it from, along with the statements for all the surrounding municipalities. Disclosure is so important.

Citizens deserve to see who funded the campaigns of the people they elected. They even deserve to see it in advance of the election campaign, as they do in America on a regular basis. In the recent Obama election, there were stories six months to a year out talking about the sources of funding for people in the primaries and those in the final campaign. That was because American finance law requires that candidates reveal their sources in the course of the election and voters can make their judgment about where the candidate got their money and what influence might subsequently be brought to bear on the candidate once they're in office.