Op-ed: Doug Ford goes nuclear on election spending

The Ford government is trying to scare voters that our elections will be U.S-style free-for-alls, but the numbers don’t bear that out

The ink had barely dried on Justice Edward Morgan’s ruling striking down the Ford government’s controversial election reforms when Conservative House Leader Paul Calandra announced that the Legislature would be recalled to reintroduce election spending legislation struck down by the court using the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution.

The pretext for using Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was to prevent “a few wealthy elites, corporations and special interest groups operating through American-style super PACs would be allowed to interfere in and control our elections with unlimited money, with no rules, no disclosure, and with no accountability,” according to Calandra.

Since third-party legislation was introduced back in 2016 to set limits on election spending in Ontario how many “wealthy elites” have registered as third parties in Ontario elections? Answer – zero. That’s also the number of studies the Ontario government commissioned in defence of its legislation and days of hearings held for public input on its use of the notwithstanding clause.

Using the American bogey man is a well-worn trick to convince Ontarians that our democratic system is being corroded by our neighbours to the south. The reality is that our systems and rules around election financing are vastly different.

The danger of U.S.-style PACs has to do with what’s known as “dark money”. That is where individuals and corporations can pour unlimited amounts without having to be publicly identified.

In Ontario, an individual who donates more than $100 to a political party, candidate or third party has their name and address published for all to see to ensure transparency. This is vastly different from the U.S. system.

The Ford government is trying to scare voters that without this legislation our elections will be an unregulated free for all of third-party advertising. The numbers don’t bear that out.

In the 2018 election, the Progressive Conservatives spent more than any other party – $8.5 million. The Liberals and NDP each spent around $7.3 million. Third-party organizations backing the government, like Ontario Proud, spent some $447,000. Working Families, meanwhile, spent $282,000.

The numbers were similar in the 2014 election. The Conservatives spent $9.4 million, the Liberals $8 million and the NDP $4.5 million. Working Families spent $2.5 million.

Compared to political parties, there doesn’t appear to be an orgy of spending by third parties.

Let’s also not forget that political parties are heavily subsidized by you, the taxpayer. That’s right, political parties are entitled to a per vote subsidy that entitles them to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Plus, donors are rewarded with tax credits of up to 75 per cent of their donations which allows parties to raise more money thanks to taxpayers. Third parties, on the other hand, are not eligible for any of these subsidies.

So what is the real motivation behind Ford’s use of the nuclear option?

The use of the notwithstanding clause has never been used in Ontario in nearly 40 years and for good reason. The original framers of the clause, Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry, Saskatchewan Attorney General Roy Romanow and federal Justice Minister Jean Chretien, realized that it should be only used in the most extreme circumstances to give governments the ability to temporarily override or bypass certain Charter rights.

It didn’t take long for Justice Morgan of the Ontario Superior Court to decide that the Ford government’s controversial Protecting Ontario Elections Act, 2021 (Bill 254) was unconstitutional. The ruling came quickly after two days of hearings.

The court case focused on the current Bill 254 but had its origins in an earlier Bill 2 (2016) under the Wynne government. Working Families and other groups challenged that legislation as well but even before this constitutional challenge could be heard, the Ford government introduced its sweeping changes that resulted in even greater spending restrictions.

Now with the reintroduction of the legislation restoring the old rules, the court decision was a short-lived victory not only for groups like Working Families that championed the case but for ordinary Ontarians who wish to have their opinions heard on important issues that affect the province. 

The list of groups and individuals with grievances against the Ford government is a long one – teachers, nurses and public services workers, families of long-term care residents, and businesses and workers affected by COVID-19. 

Besides spending limits the legislation has strict penalties for contraventions and a whole host of provisions designed to restrict freedom of expression and association.

By invoking the notwithstanding clause, Ford is using the legislation for his own self-interest and preservation while denying Ontarians democratic rights that would normally be protected. He has pushed the nuclear button and the radioactive fallout when it comes to democratic rights will linger for years to come.

Marcel Wieder is President & Chief Advocate for Aurora Strategy Group and served as lead consultant for Working Families.


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