11/23/2016 10:56 EST | Updated 11/23/2016 11:27 EST

Saskatchewan Political Donation Problem Is A Caution For Canada


The role of money in Canadian politics has been the subject of increased scrutiny in the last year. Premier Christie Clark in British Columbia has been criticized for attending private gatherings with high-level donors and for receiving a top-up of her premier's salary from the B.C. Liberal Party.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has been under similar scrutiny for the existence of such "pay-to-play" events and the existence of fundraising quotas for ministers. This pressure has led to the introduction of amendments to Ontario law that would ban MPPs from fundraising while also introducing a ban on corporate and union donations.

The role and influence of money in the political process has long been antagonistic to a fully democratic electoral system. Political parties must raise money from party supporters to maintain an organization, promote various messages and compete in elections, but it matters where that money comes from and how it is raised.

Saskatchewan has no restrictions on the amount of money that can be donated to a party and also allows out-of-province corporate donations.

If those with vast amounts of money have greater access to government, the system loses legitimacy. It is for these reasons that the so-called "pay-to-play" controversies -- such as federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau's $1500 a head fundraiser at the home of a prominent Halifax land developer -- are of such concern.

The perception that wealthy donors have overt access to federal and provincial leaders has led six provinces to ban or limit corporate and union donations to political parties. While clearly loopholes still remain, the trend is toward limiting the role of money in politics through restricting donations to individuals, putting upper limits on donations and limiting donations to those living within the relevant jurisdiction.

One province, however, is a significant outlier in its approach to campaign financing reform. A recently released report from Progress Alberta describes Saskatchewan as having the worst finance regulations in the country. Saskatchewan has no restrictions on the amount of money that can be donated to a party and also allows out-of-province corporate donations.

According to the Progress Alberta report, more than three million dollars have been donated to the Saskatchewan Party from out of province sources, with over two million coming from Alberta. One can only speculate why companies in other provinces would donate to the Saskatchewan government, but it is hard to imagine how such donations contribute to fair and democratic elections.

Since coming to power in 2007, the Saskatchewan Party government has taken in millions of dollars in corporate donations, in some cases virtually anonymously. For instance, numbered companies routinely give to the Saskatchewan Party. Between 2007 and 2015, 565509 Saskatchewan Ltd donated over $80,000 to the party. Saskatchewan citizens have almost no way of tracking who made these donations.

Beyond the numbered company donations, Elections Saskatchewan data shows further worrying trends. For instance, the Saskatchewan Party has received yearly donations from the country's largest oil companies, including over $68,108.06 from Calgary based Cenovus energy between 2010 and 2015. Scanning through the list of corporate donors also finds companies such as Husky Energy Inc. and the Husky Group of Companies, whose pipeline was the source of a major oil spill in Northern Saskatchewan in early 2016.

Saskatchewan is an outlier, but it's clearly not the only province in need of serious reform.

The lukewarm response from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to this environmental disaster or his vehement opposition to carbon pricing, inevitably leave people questioning whether he is motivated more by the people he represents or the large corporate donors that fund his campaigns.

Perhaps most concerning of all are the large numbers of donations received from publicly funded sources. Cities and towns, registered charities, educational institutions, libraries, crown corporations and other government agencies have given frequently to the Saskatchewan Party. For example, both the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina have donated close to $1500/year between 2007 and 2011 to the Saskatchewan Party. Given that organizations like these operate on public dollars, the risk of conflict of interest or pressure (perceived or real) to donate is deeply concerning.

It's clear that this type of influence doesn't sit well with voters either. A recent Mainstreet poll in Saskatchewan showed 69 per cent of respondents opposing out-of-province donations, 74 per cent opposing donations from registered charities, and 81 per cent opposing donations from publicly-funded institutions.

What should be done to solve this problem? Saskatchewan is an outlier, but it's clearly not the only province in need of serious reform.

All provinces should ban corporate and union donations, as these propagate the perception of outsized influence from large corporate or organized group interests. There should also be clear limits on third party advertising during elections. Provinces also need to stop the practice of out-of-province donations and donations from public institutions and registered charities.

Setting individual limits (preferably lower than the federal limit of $1525) would also even out the influence among the people of the province. There is also the murky territory of internal party spending and bookkeeping, which is ripe for possible corruption and should be scrutinized by provincial auditors.

Healthy democracies place individual citizens at the centre of the political process. Having transparent rules that limit outside influence keeps voters and their interests at the centre of elections and the governance to follow. Such rules may have the unintended consequence of fewer political ads, but that's something we wager most Canadians could get used to.

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