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Money and influence in Yukon politics

Money and politics have always been intimately connected. Cicero reported that one election in ancient Rome was so hard fought that interest rates doubled during the campaign as candidates borrowed feverishly to finance their vote buying.

Money and politics have always been intimately connected. Cicero reported that one election in ancient Rome was so hard fought that interest rates doubled during the campaign as candidates borrowed feverishly to finance their vote buying.

Instead of lawn signs and bumper stickers, the Romans had wine cups with the candidate’s name written at the bottom. Once you had drunk your free wine, you knew who to vote for.

Despite having some pretty lax campaign finance rules (more on that in a minute), the Yukon has so far been spared the kind of big-money scandals that have rocked other democracies.

One reason is that our campaign budgets are quite small, and therefore relatively easy to fund. A Yukon election campaign is one of the cheapest political contests in North America. The three main parties spent just over $365,000 in the 2011 election. The Yukon Party’s winning campaign cost about $140,000. Running a losing campaign cost the NDP only $8,000 less, while the Liberals spent around $90,000 to come in third.

Not much, when you consider that whoever wins will control our billion-dollar transfer payment from Ottawa. And it’s a pittance compared to the $1.6 million that the average winning U.S. House of Representatives candidate spent in 2012, according to the New York Times. Even in Alaska, the numbers are bigger. For the 2014 referendum on the state’s oil and gas royalties, the “No” side raised over $10 million. Most of it came from oil companies.

In fact, the main reason to look at the campaign finance reports of our political parties is to get a feel for how organized they are and how many donors care enough about them to give. It’s not really an issue about whether any of them can afford enough lawn signs (although more cash does allow you to buy more Facebook and radio ads).

So let’s look at the last three years where we have official political fundraising reports. In addition to shedding some light on who gave how much to which party, the figures also give an idea about which parties are the best organized and have the broadest (or richest) support. A party’s fundraising record also gives a hint about the effectiveness of its leader, since an appealing leader can raise money more easily and an effective leader will set up a more effective fundraising organization.

You might think the Yukon Party would have raised the most money, since they are in power and have close ties to the mining industry. However, the NDP raised the most over the three-year period at $180,839. The Yukon Party raised $154,474 and the Yukon Liberals $42,946.

The NDP out-raised the Yukon Party in 2013, but were pipped at the post in 2014. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the NDP raised $71,101, barely beating the Yukon Party’s $69,615. The Yukon Liberals, meanwhile, raised just $20,275.

The breakdown of contributions is also interesting. In 2015, the NDP received 356 donations over $250, the limit where the donor’s name must be published. The Yukon Party received 113 and the Yukon Liberals 94.

Like Obama in his first campaign, the NDP is raising large sums from lots of smaller donations. Their average donation was $200. The Yukon Party is raising similar sums from fewer — but larger — donations. Their average donation was $616. The Liberals achieved third place by combining the NDP and Yukon Party strategies: a small number of donations with a small average donation size of $216.

The Yukon Party’s biggest donation in 2015 was from a mining company who gave $5,800. Other resource companies gave sums in the $800 range. The Yukon Party also started tapping into First Nations development corporations as donors, something we saw happening in a big way in Alaska during their oil and gas referendum.

Traditionally, unions have been big donors to the NDP. In 2014, they received money from several of the big unions. But in 2015, the NDP received no union money.

This may be related to NDP leader Liz Hanson’s recent proposal to reform campaign finance in the Yukon. She tabled a bill earlier this year, but it didn’t pass in time for the election. The bill would have banned corporate and union donations, as well as donations from Outside donors.

In my view, a ban on corporate and union political donations would be a good idea. I’m not so sure about banning Outside donors. Perhaps some clever lawyer can figure out wording that would ban donations from Russian oligarchs but still allow ones from a candidate’s great aunt in Victoria (assuming she’s not an oligarch of course).

The challenge with regulating donations to political parties is that everyone immediately finds loopholes. One of the biggest is third-party spending. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that unions spent over $15 million in the last three Ontario elections, 94 per cent of all third-party advertising. Much of this was aimed at the Tories, and laundered through seemingly independent front organizations with names like “Working Families.”

The Yukon is a small place. Outside donors such as mining companies or US environmental foundations could spend amounts that are quite small for them, but would have a big impact on the number of Facebook ads and radio spots that Yukon voters see. These groups have a right to share their message, but I would argue we need regulations to ensure they divulge the names of their organizers and donors.

Liz Hanson’s bill didn’t have time to get passed before this election. Before the next one, I hope the winner will pass a tri-partisan campaign finance reform including transparency on third-party advertising.

Third-party advertising is largely a wide-open field in the Yukon. We should improve regulation of this kind of advertising sooner rather than later.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can watch his election interviews with all four party leaders on the Northwestel Community Channel website. Full disclosure: Keith is a member of the Yukon Liberal Party. He is not involved in their campaign.