Yukon’s political donations are chump change, but limits still worthwhile

So the Yukon NDP wants to make campaign finance an upcoming territorial election issue, with their proposals to ban donations by companies, unions and non-residents and to cap individual donations to $1,500.

So the Yukon NDP wants to make campaign finance an upcoming territorial election issue, with their proposals to ban donations by companies, unions and non-residents and to cap individual donations to $1,500.

To the NDP’s credit, these plans may not be entirely self-serving. The biggest political donation during the year of the last territorial election in 2011, after all, was made to the New Democrats, with $35,000 forked over by the Yukon Federation of Labour, although the federation’s president told the News this week the organization plans to not throw its weight into the upcoming territorial election. Whether individual unions plan to donate remains to be seen – and likely won’t be known until well after the election is over, due to the long lag times for Yukon’s public disclosure of political donations.

The NDP’s proposed campaign finance reforms would also cut off a significant share of the Yukon Party’s revenue stream that comes from companies – namely, their buddies in the mining industry. The New Democrats reckon that nearly three-quarters of the Yukon Party’s donations would fall under that category. The reform would have a more negligible impact on the Yukon Liberals: since they’ve proven so poor at raising money in recent years, they would see little lost.

The Yukon Party has studiously avoided discussing the merits of the NDP’s plan. Instead, they’ve derided the scheme as a “political stunt,” given how it has been introduced shortly before the upcoming territorial election.

This is a bit rich. Of course the New Democrats have framed their policy proposal in a way that’s politically advantageous. The Yukon Party does the same thing all the time – the start of big construction projects during election years is surely not coincidental. The Yukon Party’s accusations also lose some heft when their complaint is made in the form of a motion in the legislature, only for it to be ruled out of order the following day by the Speaker, due to it being unduly combative.

Sure, the NDP could have made this proposal much sooner, during the recent review of the Elections Act. And, had they, they could have been fairly certain they would have received a patronizing dismissal from the government, along the lines of how Premier Darrell Pasloski responded to their request for a lobbyist registry by saying that anyone who wants to speak with him can do so when they bump into him at the grocery store.

If NDP Leader Liz Hanson can be faulted for her campaign finance pitch, it’s for her dark intimations that “big money” may be skewing territorial politics. As proof, she gestures to … Ontario and British Columbia.

Premiers in those provinces have lately been under fire for the sleazy way in which their parties solicit donations. In Ontario, cabinet ministers are assigned secret fundraising quotas, and the governing Liberals regularly throw unpublicized cocktail parties where donors pay thousands for face-time with the premier, the Globe and Mail recently reported. Similarly, in British Columbia the Globe reports that donors pay up to $20,000 for a chance to attend events with Premier Christy Clark.

Here in the Yukon, the closest thing we have are the annual fundraising bashes that the Yukon Party likes to throw during the big Roundup meeting of miners in Vancouver. In 2014 the Liberals made a stink over how the Yukon Party threw a $300-a-plate fundraising cruise through Burrard Inlet aboard a yacht named the Lucky Charm. The event, called “The Yukon Party Party,” was billed as “an exclusive opportunity to connect with Premier Pasloski and ministers Kent and Dixon.”

At the time, the bone of contention wasn’t the fundraising itself, but the question of where ministers travelled to the event on the public dime – something that the Yukon Party ensured it didn’t do. But the event also stands as a blatant example of the government selling access to our political leaders for cash. What else was the entrance fee supposed to buy miners, other than influence over the premier and the ministers expected to regulate their industry?

If many shrugged off this news at the time, it’s probably because it’s not exactly a secret that the Yukon Party is slavishly devoted to the mining industry, and that miners reward this loyalty with their donations. It remains an open question whether this relationship would change in any meaningful way if the rules proposed by the NDP came to be law.

That doesn’t mean that “big money” is currently a problem in the Yukon, as Hanson insinuates. To put things in perspective, during the 2013 provincial election in B.C. the governing Liberals spent nearly $12 million, while the NDP Opposition spent more than $9 million. By comparison, during our last territorial election in 2011 the Yukon Party spent a measly $140,000, while the New Democrats spent $134,000 and the Liberals spent a little more than $90,000.

Admittedly, B.C. has a population more than 130 times the size of the Yukon’s. If you look at campaign spending on a per head basis, the two jurisdictions don’t seem so out of line: whereas the Yukon Party spent about $4 per Yukoner on their campaign, the B.C. Liberals spent $2.60 per British Columbian. But to conjure “big money” – a term commonly used to describe the multi-billion-dollar presidential campaigns in the U.S. – seems like a gross exaggeration.

The NDP’s proposal is much in line with the current federal laws governing campaign finance. Those rules forbid political donations by corporations and unions. Federal rules also include another measure, which would also be worth including here to prevent future mischief, that limits third-party advertising. That would help prevent unions and miners from creating their own Super-PAC-style groups as a roundabout way of attacking their political foes. Miners and everyone else, of course, would remain free to donate as individuals to whichever party they choose, within the assigned annual cap.

Campaign finance limits may even be a good thing for donors. In Ontario, an anonymous donor kvetched to the Globe that he welcomed such limits, as it would prevent the Liberal government from shaking him down so frequently.

Perhaps some miners would feel similarly – especially those wondering whether they’ve gotten a reasonable return on investment on their recent contribution to the Yukon Party, given how the government’s rocky relationship with First Nations has made life more difficult for industry. And it’s easy to imagine not all union members would appreciate a piece of their dues being diverted towards supporting one party’s election campaign, particularly if they don’t even have a direct say over the matter.

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