I would like to begin by thanking the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for inviting me to provide my observations on Bill C-50, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act with respect to political financing. I welcome the chance to offer my insights and advice on the electoral process to you. When I provide comments to a committee of the House of Commons, I am very aware that I am addressing Canada's lawmakers.
Today, I would like to briefly address these topics: one, creating a fair and level playing field; two, Ontario's election finance system; and three, the provisions of this bill.
The first observation I'd like to make is on the importance of maintaining a fair and level playing field. All political actors require financial resources, and money is an essential element in politics. Chief electoral officers of Canada, from the past and present, speak of the special role parties play in the democratic process. They also speak of the need to strike the right balance in creating a funding formula that sustains parties but does not unfairly enrich them or, conversely, leave them beholden to any one contribution source.
The concept of the level playing field is central to our democracy. It is also a unifying principle of election administration; it ties together the voting process and the campaign process. This is how it ties them together. Election outcomes are supposed to reflect the genuine will of the people. Political finance rules are supposed to ensure that parties have equal opportunity to raise and spend funds to advance their message and win votes. Electoral outcomes should not be distorted because of unequal opportunities to influence the electorate.
Academics and judges have written about this at length. As an election administrator, I see that it boils down to one fundamental proposition: All who enter the electoral arena should be treated equally. The debate, then, becomes what rules are rational, necessary, and practical to have in place. In other words, we need to strike the right balance between transparency and participation in the electoral process.
I would now like to provide some insight into Ontario's election finance regime.
Last year, while Ontario was undergoing significant electoral reform, I was asked and agreed to serve as an adviser to the Standing Committee on General Government. As the Chief Electoral Officer, I am an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly. My mandate includes overseeing the registration and financial reporting requirements of all parties and candidates, not just those represented in the Legislative Assembly. You might say that I am the referee, and I referee the rules of the political game in provincial elections. I saw my role as helping ensure there was a level playing field on which all compete.
Ontario took an extensive process in consulting the public. Throughout my time as an adviser, I had the opportunity to travel the province and listen to deputants speak about the relationship between money and politics. I also appeared three times in front of the committee to provide my thoughts on the provisions in the bill.
In following the debate on the bill prior to the consultation process, it was evident that there was a strong desire to reform campaign finances and to put an end to what was termed “cash for access”. Ontario made significant reforms to contribution limits.
The first was a ban on corporate and trade union donations. Only individuals who are residents of Ontario can now make contributions to political parties, constituency associations, candidate campaigns, leadership contestants, and nomination contestants.
The second significant change was the amount an individual could contribute annually to political parties. Prior to the amendments, individuals could contribute up to $9,975 annually, and up to an additional $9,975 for each campaign period. This meant that, in a year when we had two by-elections, contributors were able to contribute up to $29,925 to a party.
Under the bill now, the contribution limit is $1,200 annually to a political party, $1,200 annually to constituency associations and nomination contestants, and $1,200 annually to a leadership contestant, totalling an annual contribution limit of $3,600. No extra amount over the annual limit is allowed, regardless of the number of campaigns.
The next area I would like to address is annual allowances.
Earlier in my remarks, I observed the need to strike the right balance in creating a funding formula that sustains parties but does not unfairly enrich them or leave them beholden to any one contribution source. To that end, Ontario introduced a unique system by providing quarterly allowances to support the activities of political parties and constituency associations. Funding formulas have been developed to determine how much each party or constituency association receives.
While I strongly believe that private and public funding support to political parties is essential, I do not advocate for one model over another, but believe that a funding formula that balances public and private funding is an important component of our democratic system.
Another significant amendment was to fundraising events themselves. Similar to the provisions in Bill C-50, Ontario introduced similar reporting requirements for fundraising events. Parties are also required to inform the public on their website at least seven days in advance that a fundraising event is being held.
Attendance at fundraising events, though, has been significantly reformed in Ontario. Many political actors are now prohibited from attending fundraising events. These range from leaders of registered parties, MPPs, to staff members in the leader's office. As you can see, Ontario has taken a strong approach to amending the election finance system.
What I will put forward for the consideration of this committee, when you are reviewing and amending provisions related to election finance laws, concerns the risk of unintended consequences. Let me give you an example.
While Ontario was amending its fundraising requirements, prohibiting party leaders, MPPs, and nomination contestants from attending fundraising events, they did not make any exceptions for events such as annual general meetings, policy conferences, and similar events. I believe the new fundraising requirements were originally intended to restrict attendance at large fundraising dinners and other such events. However, because of the wording of the act, I believe an unintended consequence of the attendance restrictions applied to party meetings like annual general meetings, for which delegate fees included a contribution portion. I thus wrote to all three party leaders recommending that the Election Finances Act be amended at the earliest opportunity to specifically exempt such events.
I do not believe the attendance provisions were meant to restrict leaders and MPPs from attending events where party policy and party platforms were being debated and decided upon. Generally, I was supportive of most of these changes and found this level of reform appropriate.
I will now turn my attention to the provisions of Bill C-50. In reviewing the provisions of this bill and other bills related to elections, I always ask myself whether the changes protect the integrity of the electoral process, preserves fairness, and promotes transparency.
I have reviewed this bill closely and offer the following observations. The provisions in Bill C-50 are not as strict as those of Ontario's current election finance system. Yet, there are many positive aspects of this bill. I do believe this bill achieves greater transparency by making fundraising events public and adding requirements to report to the Chief Electoral Officer.
I would suggest that the committee, in deliberating these provisions, apply the principle of consistency when regulating political actors. The way the legislation is written, many of these fundraising provisions apply only to leaders, interim leaders, or leadership contestants. I believe it would be an oversight to not give consideration to, for example, members of Parliament or high-ranking political staffers, such as chiefs of staff, when it comes to attendance at fundraising events. Many of them have a level of influence that is important to recognize. Mr. Jean-Pierre Kingsley also raised this when he presented to you on this bill, and I concur with his rationale.
As the committee continues to debate this legislation and additional changes to election finances, I once again remind you to closely examine all provisions of the bill to ensure that unintended consequences do not arise.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the committee for inviting me to speak and offer my perspectives as Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario. I applaud the work this committee is doing on electoral reform and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.