Michael Bloomberg spent $450 million dollars to advertise his candidacy for the Democratic leadership in the US. In Canada that wouldn’t be possible because we have spending limits. The regulation was created to increase transparency on political parties’ activity and to build a fairer electoral arena.
Canada’s federal election finance laws put limits on contributions to political parties and candidates. Only individuals may donate, and contributions are limited to up to $1,500 a year to each political party and up to $1,500 to all of the registered electoral district associations, contestants seeking the party’s nomination and candidates for each party.
In addition, donors may give up to $1,500 to leadership contestants for a party as well as up to $1,500 to independent candidates. These limits were set in 2015, and the amounts increase by $25 each year. Besides this, political actors must disclose the names of anyone who donates more than $200.
Because money is such an important resource in campaigns and elections, party finance laws are often controversial. Lesley Wood has a PhD in Sociology from Columbia University and teaches on Sociology Department of York University. Politics and government is one of her research interest areas and in spite of the power of money she still thinks that ideologies are still alive and that many people are feeling “frustrated and alienated by the current electoral system”.
Milénio Stadium: Political parties and candidates need money to pay election campaign expenses, to maintain organizational activities and to conduct research for policy purposes. They are funded both privately and publicly. What are the risks of this and is the system transparent?
Lesley Wood: As they sometimes say, “money talks.” While there are different campaign finance laws in different provinces and countries, they usually benefit the wealthy and organized. In 2016, the Ontario government banned donations by corporations and unions, but this current government has created some loopholes to allow them to contribute to political parties and candidates. One risk here is that political parties will listen to their donors more than other people, passing sympathetic politics, regardless of whether they benefit the common good. Many wealthy people and individuals give the maximum allowed to both the Liberals and the Conservatives, which one could see as either support for the political system or hedging their bets.
MS: Who are the biggest donors of political campaigns in Canada/Ontario and how does it affect society?
LW: Advertising also plays a role. Wealthy individuals, groups and political parties can also afford to advertise widely and influence public opinion. While there are spending limits in Ontario, in the US we saw Michael Bloomberg spend $450 million dollars to advertise his candidacy for the Democratic leadership. Clearly, those who are not billionaires can’t afford this. In Canada, we see third party groups across the spectrum paying for online advertising. The risk of this is that wealthy voices get more airtime, and this means that people are more likely to vote for leaders who will not serve their needs. For the last provincial election, the PCs raised nearly $13 million, whereas the Liberals raised $6, and the NDP less than $4. This makes a difference.
The biggest donors to the Ontario PCs in their 2016 campaign were Orlando Corp. $159,600; Medipac $100,415; LIUNA $74,070 and Canerector Inc & Hawkins Family $69,825.
MS: What is the political identity of Canada? Are ideologies still alive?
LW: What is the political identity of Canada? I think it is changing. When I was young, our identity was “not the US”, with a belief in multiculturalism and social democracy. Today, I think many Canadians have realized that Canada is not innocent – particularly in relation to indigenous people, the environment and racism. I would say the political identity of Canada is divided, between those who are reflecting and those who wish to maintain a ‘pure’ nationalism. Ideologies are very alive – if we are talking about individualism, and nationalism in particular. I believe liberalism is in crisis, because its meaning is contested between those who see it primarily about individual freedom, and those who see it as support for equality and the social good.
MS: How would you describe the relationship that exists between money, politics and democracy?
LW: Societies are more democratic when they consult with, and protect, different sections of society equally. Unequal wealth makes this a challenge, as powerholders try to convince the wealthiest to support them. There is a cycle here that leads to increased division between the rich and the rest. This is why it is crucial for more marginalized people to organize together.
MS: According to polls, the majority of Canadians think politicians aren’t concerned with people like them and experts don’t understand them. They say society is “broken” and the economy is rigged in favour of elites. What’s your opinion?
LW: Wealth does beget wealth in this current system. Those on top still try to convince us that the wealth will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the people, but 20 years of policies of tax cuts and cuts to social spending haven’t shown this to be the case. The powerful, as they become more powerful, care less about what the ordinary person thinks. Then, logically, ordinary people care less about politics and politicians and stop paying attention. This is dangerous – because things can get worse, and when they do, politicians will blame immigrants, or people on welfare, and avoid their responsibility.
MS: As a specialist in the tactics and organization of social movements, what are the waves of protest that are transforming communities in the country and in Ontario?
LW: There has been a lot of protest lately – in the past year, we can think about the ongoing, strong teachers strikes, the Climate Strike protests, which attracted thousands in September; the blockades across Canada in support of the Wet’suwet’en land claims, and against pipelines. The latter two have many young people, who are frustrated and alienated by the current electoral system. They are skeptical about politicians, so are protesting both in order to put pressure on the system and to inspire others to organize together to say that another world is possible – one that treats people and the earth better. These protests bring together social media mobilizing with more face to face efforts in important ways.