The eve of an election is an odd time for a serious talk about campaign finance limits

Given how a territorial election must be held by the autumn, the timing of the Yukon NDP's introduction of a bill to place limits on campaign financing can only be described as being at the eleventh hour.

Given how a territorial election must be held by the autumn, the timing of the Yukon NDP’s introduction of a bill to place limits on campaign financing can only be described as being at the eleventh hour.

The NDP’s bill would ban corporate and union donations, cap individual donations at $1,500 and require that all donors reside in the territory.

Whatever the bill merits (which I will return to shortly) I agree with the Yukon Party that the decision to introduce this bill in April – mere months before an election, and shortly after a comprehensive review of the Elections Act was completed – is indeed strange timing.

A serious attempt at reform would have been made earlier, so the goal here is probably political theatre. It is difficult to believe that the NDP seriously expects the Yukon Party will agree to reforms that will end its overwhelming dominance in campaign fundraising.

The bill is likely part of an election strategy to highlight for the public the degree to which the Yukon Party is dependent on – and thus beholden to, so the theory goes – corporate donors, many of which come from outside the territory.

The timing of the announcement by the Yukon Federation of Labour that it wouldn’t be donating this election cycle – just days after the bill was introduced – probably dampened whatever slim chances the bill had of making its way through the legislature. The umbrella group of unions donated $35,000 to the NDP’s 2011 election campaign and was its single largest contributor.

The timing is so strange that I had wondered whether the NDP was aware that it would not be receiving a similar windfall this year, and this bill may have been a Hail Mary attempt at damage control. But the NDP has denied that it knew about the labour federation’s decision to not donate when it crafted its campaign finance plans.

If that’s the case, the YFL didn’t do the party any favours by announcing when it did. What little incentive the Yukon Party had to play along when the bill appeared to take something away from everyone likely evaporated when it was clear that only it would pay a price this cycle. The Yukon Party can now fall back on the somewhat plausible excuse that there isn’t enough legislative time for comprehensive reform before campaigning begins.

Election finance reform in the Yukon is worth examining and some credit is due to the NDP for finally broaching the subject – however strange the timing. The lack of limits on who can contribute how much to territorial candidates and parties is less than ideal.

Most particularly, the practice of not only receiving donations from outside the territory, but actively seeking them out, means that non-Yukoners have more influence over our politics than they ought to. If one part of this bill ought to be pushed through quickly it is that one.

Capping the amount that people can donate helps level the playing field for everyone, and eliminating corporate donations would be necessary to ensure that those with shares in incorporated companies do not get a second shot at contributing. The entire business of union donations – which are ultimately derived from members who had no choice but to contribute yet may not want to see their money given to a particular political party – has always been something that stuck in my craw, but that could be the subject of a whole other column.

General philosophical agreement aside, I think the issue requires some careful consideration and the eleventh hour start is unhelpful.

The parties need to seriously consider how they will fund their operations if important revenue streams dry up. Campaigns cost a lot of money and the bill – if passed – would presumably result in significantly less for all three parties. I already mentioned the large contribution the NDP received from the Yukon Federation of Labour in the last election. But the Yukon Party – and to a much lesser extent – the Yukon Liberal Party would stand to lose substantial contributions from corporations the last go around. All three parties received donations from individuals that would exceed the $1,500 cap proposed by the NDP.

Presumably, the Yukon Party shares the ideological revulsion shown by its ostensibly unrelated federal cousins towards government subsidies for political parties (which the latter scrapped after forming a majority government) so that is likely off the table. So all three parties will all have to figure out how to raise some new money,

Or alternatively they can work on getting by with less. The importance of campaign spending can be overstated. In the last federal election we were all forced to endure several months of media saturation courtesy of the well-funded Conservative candidate who spent $179,155 who deluged us with radio ads and excessive signage. Readers will recall that he was soundly defeated by a candidate who spent far less than half – about $72,541.

I wish the NDP well in trying to introduce some ground rules for how politicians raise money. While there are some details to sort out I think that it’s a step in the right direction. And despite the glacial pace of our legislative process those details are not so complicated that we couldn’t sort them out before heading to the polls.

But next time a political party wants to propose changes of an important nature, I’d suggest picking a more opportune time.

Addendum

This column was prepared before the release of 2015 fundraising numbers by Elections Yukon. With the benefit of those numbers, the author would have speculated that the real purpose of the NDP’s proposed bill was to attain a dominant position in territorial election financing given its strong performance via small individual contributions.

 

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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