PCs move to double political donation cap, extend per-vote subsidy

By Allison Smith February 26, 2021

Electoral reform is back on the agenda. Attorney General Doug Downey tabled a new bill Thursday that would increase the amount individuals can donate to candidates, constituency associations, leadership contestants and political parties to $3,300 per year, double the current amount.

The government says this would bring Ontario “into the middle of the pack” compared to other provinces’ annual fundraising caps.

The change is likely to disproportionately benefit the Progressive Conservative Party, which has more high-level donors than its rivals. The PC Party raised nearly $3.4 million in 2020 and has hosted a number of Zoom events with $1,000 ticket prices already this year, including one featuring Premier Doug Ford last night.

The Ford government first shook up fundraising rules five months after taking office when it scrapped Liberal-era “cash-for-access” restrictions that limited cabinet ministers’ attendance at political events and raised the annual donation cap to $1,600 (it has been tracking up on a schedule since then).

The new bill would also reduce the amount of time a political fundraising event must be advertised publicly online from seven days to three, watering down another Liberal-era measure.

Per-vote subsidies will live on until December 31, 2024, should Bill 254 pass, rather than winding down next year as planned.

The subsidy is also rising back to 2018 levels, granting parties $2.54 per vote annually. That’s up from the $1.81 per vote they were expecting to receive this year.

That works out to about $5.9 million annually for the PCs; $4.9 million for the NDP; $2.9 million for the Liberals; and $672,000 for the Greens.

Ahead of the last election, Premier Ford pledged to eliminate per-vote subsidies, which he dubbed “political welfare.” The government says it decided to extend and increase them because of the pandemic, which has made political fundraising more challenging.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the donation cap hike opens the door to “pay to play politics,” but that he supports the per-vote subsidy extension because it lets every Ontarian donate with their vote.

The bill also levels the fundraising playing field for Independent MPPs by allowing them to raise money outside writ periods. Randy Hillier has been pushing for this change since he was ousted from the PC caucus and launched a legal challenge against the fundraising restrictions in 2019.

New restrictions on third-party political advertising
Downey’s legislation also aims to clamp down on the influence of third-party advertisers by extending the pre-election period that governs their spending from six months to 12.

Under current rules, a third party can spend $637,200 in the six months before the writ and $106,200 during the campaign for a total of $743,400.

The province has long been known as a bastion of third-party party spending. “Ontario is the only province in Canada where third-party spending is counted in the millions of dollars, rather than in the thousands,” the attorney general ministry said in a news release.

The spendiest third-party groups ahead of the 2018 general election were the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario ($693,686), the Ontario Medical Association ($596,652), Ontario Proud ($447,400), Working Families ($282,500) and Unifor ($211,644).

The NDP said the 12-month change would limit pre-election political speech from community groups that don’t register as third-party advertisers.

“At a time when long-term care advocates, organizations of health leaders, and the families of nursing home residents are speaking up about the horrors in long-term care, it looks like Ford is trying to silence his critics,” said NDP Ethics critic Taras Natyshak.

The proposed law will also “clearly define collusion” so third parties can’t coordinate their messaging with political parties or other advertising groups. It would make it illegal for third parties to share information, vendors, or “a common set of political contributors or donors” with another third-party group that represents the same political causes as it does.

Defining partisanship on social media
Bill 254 also wades into regulating how MPPs use their social media accounts.

While MPP’s accounts will be officially cleared to share “partisan” content, the bill’s definition of “partisan” appears to place limits on criticism.

Partisan material that “supports or opposes a particular candidate, party or issue” is A-OK, but it cannot be “related to the Government of Ontario’s work for the public at large or a member of the Assembly’s work for their constituency at large.”

The legislation would also allow cabinet ministers to maintain secondary individual social media accounts. Those accounts can share content pertaining to their ministerial activities, including during election campaigns.

In response to the pandemic, Downey’s Bill 254 aims to increase the number of advanced polling days from five to 10. The next general election is scheduled for June 2022.