Time to update political fundraising rules

One of the unfortunate results of globalization has been an increase in the influence of corporations on government policy. Industry has insinuated itself throughout our government in relationships that many argue are just a tad too cozy. Thus, for example, promoting the controversial salmon farming industry has become part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ mandate. Similarly, Agriculture Canada has an arm dedicated to the promotion of biotechnology. And Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources routinely goes to bat for the oil industry, in spite of the industry’s anti-Kyoto stance.

If Canadians could be confident that our federal government is still keeping a critical eye on industry, this marriage would be less disturbing. But we can have no such confidence, partly because it’s so easy for corporations to provide generous “donations” to political parties, leadership candidates and ministers that go unrecorded. Democracy in Canada would be well served if we could close these loopholes that conjure up visions of backroom deals and political payoffs.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the last overhaul of Canada’s rules for federal political fundraising, and it’s time for the system to be updated to the realities of the 21st Century. With scandal after scandal in the corporate world making headlines, our politicians cannot stand idly by and expect Canadians to take it on faith that somehow they are more honest about their sources of funding than CEOs.
The problem with the current structure of political fundraising regulations is that it is far too easy to abuse two key areas – disclosure and donation limits. In regards to disclosure, the current rules are so limited that they practically invite wrongdoing. Donations to party leadership candidates are still allowed to be made in secret. It is not uncommon for candidates to spend millions in a leadership race. Yet the sources of this funding do not have to be recorded.
Furthermore, parties are only required to report their donations once a year, and there are no dates attached to the donations. This means that one company or industry group could give a major donation just before an important vote in Parliament, essentially trying to “buy” a vote for a particular piece of legislation. But the public wouldn’t know about the donation for months, and we would never know when the donation was made. Essentially, the public is left in the dark about whether or not corporations are trying to influence government legislation with financial incentives. In the United States, donations are recorded to the day and disclosed every month.
It can also be hard to figure out exactly who makes federal political donations. With corporations now having subsidiary upon subsidiary, it can be very difficult to trace the true lineage of any particular gift. Large corporations can use their diversity and ability to easily create “shell” corporations (which exist only on paper) to donate whatever they feel is needed to further their agendas.
Quebec and Manitoba prohibit corporate donations to provincial political parties. And personal donations are not allowed to exceed $3,000. It would be wise to adopt similar laws for federal party donations because it would effectively close the current loopholes that give corporations financial influence over federal political parties.
We elect our government to act in the best interests of all Canadians, not just those well-heeled enough to fund the party campaigns. Corporate goals can often be at odds with the public good because they have to be geared towards the maximization of profits in the short term. And when corporate profits take priority over the long-term best interests of our health and our environment, we all lose.
Most politicians, I believe, are honest people. But the Canadian people deserve the peace of mind that comes from having laws that ensure our elected officials are not being influenced financially by organizations whose wealth and power often exceeds that of many of the world’s countries.

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