The following is a column by Dwight Duncan, the former Ontario finance minister and current senior strategic adviser at McMillan LLP.
The first Ontario election I was actively involved in was that of September, 1975.
That election saw Bill Davis’ vaunted Big Blue Machine lose its majority, as the Conservatives fell into a minority for the first time in 30 years. Stephen Lewis’ NDP formed the Official Opposition, while Robert Nixon’s Liberals came third in seats, in spite of coming second in votes, at a mere two percentage points below the Tories.
In May of that year, before losing their majority, the Progressive Conservatives passed the Ontario Election Finances Reform Act. It was hailed at the time because it put Ontario at the forefront of independent oversight and transparency in political fundraising among the western democracies.
It established limits and disclosure on political contributions, indirect caps on spending by parties, riding associations and candidates, outside professional audits of the same, and an independent commission to oversee it all. These were all considered revolutionary at the time.
The act was the child of the Ontario Commission on the Legislature, more commonly known as the Camp Commission. Named for its chair, the irrepressible Progressive Conservative Dalton Camp, its membership was rounded out by two former party leaders, Farquhar Oliver of the Liberals and Donald MacDonald of the NDP.
The commission’s work is viewed, by some observers, to be among the more significant Royal Commissions in Canadian history. The commission’s recommendations continue to inform many aspects of the operation of today’s legislature, political parties, and public service. Other provinces used the commission’s work to help modernize their political institutions.
Still, it is hard to believe that, 41 years after the passage of the act, the essence of the rules of political fundraising in Ontario are unchanged.
Once a leader, Ontario is now a laggard.
On Monday, the leaders of the three political parties in today’s legislature will meet to discuss amendments to the fundraising rules. Ontario must now play catch-up with federal rules, which are universally viewed as providing for greater transparency and less opportunity for private money to influence public policy.
Long overdue, Monday’s meeting will pose a number of challenges to the leaders of all three parties. The common media refrain seems to be: “Just adopt the federal rules. That’s all you have to do. Oh, and by the way, have them in place within two years!"
Were it so easy.
First, there are legitimate questions around the ability to implement sweeping change of this nature in two years.
Will the changes contemplated put one or more of the parties at a distinct advantage or disadvantage? Would a party with a large debt be hampered more than a party with a smaller debt or no debt? Does an ideologically-based party have an easier time adopting the technologies and tactics required more than a centrist, traditional Canadian political party?
Second, what is the correct process for doing this?
Party leaders can certainly kick off a discussion. But is it reasonable to expect that three parties actively opposing one another on a daily basis, all aiming to win, really set aside their differences to engage in a debate about the rules governing their own conduct? Can all of this be done and a consensus reached in a matter of weeks? What if a consensus isn’t reached? Should the government use its majority to impose changes that the opposition parties wont support? What about parties not represented in the legislature?
The third area of concern has to do with the internal functions of the parties themselves.
Do the changes being contemplated alter the relationship between ridings and the central party? Does a new fundraising regime alter the power dynamic as between elected members and the leader’s office?
The final area of concern has to do with third parties.
Are there reasonable limitations you can put on the freedom of speech? In an era of continuous campaigning and 24/7 news coverage, is there really a difference between a writ period and non-writ period? Have new institutions emerged that give strong voice to corporate and union interests that are not regulated and can exert greater influence than elected members or political parties?
None of this is to suggest that the status quo is acceptable. It’s not.
As Ontario moves forward to modernize its election financing laws, identifying problems is easy. Agreeing in principle to what needs to be fixed is fairly straightforward. Operationalizing the fixes in a manner that is fair to all, particularly the people of Ontario, is a monumental task.
Next week: Some thoughts on how to move forward in a timely fashion.
Senior Strategic Advisor, McMillan LLP
Dwight Duncan has been a senior strategic adviser to McMillan LLP, the Toronto-based business law firm, since March 2013. He advises the firm's clients on investing and operating in Canada and abroad. A long-time MPP from Windsor, Duncan became Ontario finance minister in 2005 and held the cabinet post until he left politics in 2013. Duncan was also minister of energy, revenue minister and deputy premier, among other posts in the McGuinty government.