Saskatchewan needs to reform its “anything goes” campaign finance laws
Province | by Gregory Beatty
All right everyone, stick with me here. I know campaign finance laws aren’t the sexiest subject in politics but they’re critical to making sure democracy and governments are run fairly, so we’re going to get into this.
In Canada, Quebec is the gold standard for good campaign finance rules. Saskatchewan? Bad news: our loosy-goosy political donation laws make us an ethically sketchy laggard and earn media nicknames like “the wild west”.
Quebec is at the top of the list because that province finally acted after a huge scandal that saw 500-plus companies with business ties to government in construction, engineering and other areas funnel over $12 million to provincial and municipal political parties through employees and associates. In 2013 that province — which had already banned corporate and union donations in the 1970s — imposed a $100 individual contribution limit to negate the reward (and increase the risk) of illegal funnelling.
In Saskatchewan, though, it’s a different story.
“There are almost no restrictions,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith. “And it raises all kinds of questions about who influences and has access to the government, and what that access pays for.”
Just to be clear, any individual, corporation, union or other entity can donate as much money (along with property and services) to a Saskatchewan political party as they want. That includes direct donations, “cash for access” fundraisers such as premier’s dinners and golf tournaments, membership fees and more.
Donors don’t even have to live in Saskatchewan. Their names do appear on the party donor list Elections Saskatchewan publishes annually, but that’s it.
In return for donations, donors get a generous tax credit.
Political parties argue that they need the cash and in-kind donations to compete effectively. Well, obviously, political parties need financial resources to operate. But surely it eventually reaches a point where, as Smith suggests, the amount of money in politics becomes a problem.
Which brings us to…
The Saskatchewan Story
Since the Saskatchewan Party’s breakthrough election win in 2007, it’s raked in over $30 million in donations. In 2015 alone, it raised $4.25 million — over three times as much as the NDP, which raised $1.3 million.
That same year, the Saskatchewan Party recorded 1,377 corporate donations, while the NDP had 51. And of the $30 million the Saskatchewan Party has raised since 2007, around 10 per cent has come from corporations outside the province.
That’s not a recent phenomenon either, says Smith.
“Since the party’s formation in 1997 it’s relied heavily on outside corporate [money] — primarily in Calgary, although there are other oil companies who have donated,” says Smith. “And it does raise the question who influences the government, as there’s no doubt their core economic strategy has been to double down on oil extraction.
“I thought it was highlighted well when the premier said they would use public money — at the same time as they’re cutting back on almost everything else — to attract oil companies to move their head offices from Calgary,” Smith says. “It showed the close connection between the Saskatchewan Party and Big Oil.” [see sidebar]
Other jurisdictions besides Quebec have reformed campaign finance rules. Whenever the subject comes up in Saskatchewan, though, Premier Brad Wall dismisses it as a non-issue.
“It’s surprising to the extent that it really looks bad on the government,” says Smith. “I think they’ve calculated that their supporters have very little problem with this close relationship to business, where companies and individuals with deep pockets can pay to get close to the premier.”
Recipe For Reform
Duff Conacher of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch has a simple prescription for moving Saskatchewan from this “wild west” of campaign finance to the 21st century: ban donations by corporations, unions, charities and other organizations, and ban donations from anyone who doesn’t live in Saskatchewan.
Then, set an individual contribution limit of no more than $200, prohibit loans from financial institutions to parties, and cap third party spending in election campaigns.
These measures (plus a few others, such as counting volunteer labour as a donation to cover people who get paid time off from their regular job to “volunteer”), would apply to candidates in nomination and leadership races, too.
Conacher’s response to parties that say campaign finance reform will cripple them?
That’s also simple.
“Democracy Watch’s position is lower the donation limit, see how it goes,” he says. “If parties can’t raise the money they think they need, then review the idea of a public subsidy.”
Democracy Watch isn’t opposed to grassroots political fundraising — in fact, it thinks that any public subsidy that’s introduced should be based on it.
“The per-vote subsidy is based on how many votes you get in an election, and you get it right through the next election, even if your support drops,” says Conacher.
“Matching funding is based on how much you raise each year,” he says. “If it’s a low donation limit, it’s a level playing field, and the party that’s most popular would get the most money matched.”
Conacher says the matching funding could be scaled up to make elections even more fair.
“Say for the first $100,000 raised, you match that two-to-one,” he says. “Then you match the next $100,000 one-to-one. That levels the playing field even more.”
Pay For Play
Business (and other big-money interests) are certainly entitled to a seat at the political table. But other voices representing other Saskatchewan interests need to be heard too. And with scandals such as the GTH land deal, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy in an austerity budget that saw deep cuts to government services, a Crown sell-off seemingly underway, lucrative P3 contracts being awarded, a pro-industry environmental policy and more, a lot of people wonder if they are being heard.
“I have a feeling the public is growing tired of the perception that people are enriching themselves,” concludes Smith. “If policy is being crafted in back rooms by those with access, then who is in charge? Is it voters, or those with deep pockets?
“I think those are fundamental questions in a liberal democracy,” he says. “People in Saskatchewan have a reason to be skeptical about who is making decisions, and why.” ❧
Does Brad Wall Have A Conflict Of Interest?
Democracy Watch’s Duff Conacher says Saskatchewan screwed up when it titled the act it uses to regulate conflict of interest in the legislature.
“It’s called The Members’ Conflict of Interest Act,” says Conacher. “It should really be called The Almost Impossible for a Member to be in a Conflict of Interest Act, because that’s what it is.”
That point was driven home in early April when Conflict of Interest commissioner Ron Barclay gave his blessing to Premier Brad Wall’s effort to court three Alberta oil companies he and his wife own shares in to move their head offices to Saskatchewan by offering to help with things like relocation costs, tax incentives and affordable office space.
Conacher disagrees with the commissioner’s assessment of the offer Wall made to Whitecap Resources, Crescent Point Energy and Canadian Natural Resources.
“I think he violated s.3 of the act, which says a member has a conflict of interest when they make a decision in the execution of their office, and at the same time they know there is the opportunity to further their private interest, their family’s private interest, or the private interest of an associate.
“Wall made the decision to send the letter,” Conacher adds. “It essentially said, ‘Contact us and we’ll figure out a package to help you.’ And he owns shares in the companies. Well, if the companies end up saving money, then they’re going to make more money, and the share price should go up.”
At the federal level, and in many provinces, the prime minister/premier and cabinet members are required to divest themselves of investments or hold them in a blind trust. No requirement exists for that in Saskatchewan, but Conacher thinks the NDP Opposition could still launch a complaint.
“The legislation says the commissioner ‘may’ conduct an inquiry, so they could turn it away. But if they did make a ruling, then hopefully the member would take the commissioner to court for failing to interpret the act correctly. And I think the court would rule that the commissioner is wrong.”
By launching a complaint, the NDP could score political points. But ultimately, this is a non-partisan issue that all citizens should be concerned about, says Conacher.
“Donald Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’,” he says. “That’s a very potent thing to say because there’s ample evidence that every capital city in North America is a swamp filled with lobbyists and big money donors.
“People justifiably get upset because they look and say, ‘You’re changing laws to help and protect them, and not me.’” /Gregory Beatty