PACs pave the way for big money in Canadian politics
With fixed election dates in play there is a clear runway for third-party groups to skirt the rules
A new player has appeared on the country’s political landscape. Comprised of Liberal and NDP backbench veterans, Engage Canada has invested unknown amounts in attack ads against the ruling Conservatives.
In the United States, such groups are commonly known as Political Action Committees (PACs), and their migration to Canada has begun.
In the first Harry Potter book, Ginny Weasley receives advice
from her father: “Never trust anything that can think for itself, if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.” The same wisdom applies to politics: Never trust a movement whose funders won’t reveal themselves. In Canada, there are rules that have (mostly) kept big money out of Canadian politics.
According to the International Institute for Democracy, the majority of established democracies have no limits on what a single individual can donate, most permit corporations and unions to fund political campaigns, and most either do not require public reporting of political donations, or have loopholes that allow stealth contributions.
In this country, nobody can donate more than $1,200 to a federal candidate or party in a year, corporations and unions are banned from contributing, and parties must name anyone who gives them more than $20.
Here’s the problem: the partisan activities of third parties such as Engage Canada are completely unregulated between elections. On its own, that might be wise. But with fixed election dates in play – and the next one set for October 19 – there is a clear runway for third-party groups to skirt the rules until the election officially begins.
Until then, they can collect money from whomever gives it to them, with no limits on what an individual, corporation or union can give, and no obligation to name their donors.
They will spend it on advertising in completely unregulated ways, endorsing and attacking parties and candidates as they choose.
Engage Canada is the most notable group that has arisen on the left. HarperPAC appeared to fill a similar void on the right, until the Prime Minister’s office indicated they weren’t comfortable with the name-association. A new conservative group will no doubt rise in its ashes.
Most Canadians won’t donate. So, who is the target donor for PACs? The people who have exceeded their annual contribution limit to political campaigns, and the corporations and unions prohibited from making political contributions in the first place.
PACs are the political port of convenience through which otherwise regulated or illegal activities, become unregulated and legal. Until the rules for groups like these change, or fixed election dates are done away with, we should expect them to have a growing influence in Canadian politics. Mark Coffin is the president of the Springtide Collective, an organization dedicated to improving political engagement, and imagining ways of doing politics differently @MarkCoffin on Twitter. Springtide invites Nova Scotians to share their views on how we can Make
Democracy Better at MakeDemocracyBetter.ca