Cabinet ministers' riding associations lead in political fundraising

Cabinet ministers’ riding associations lead in political fundraising

As Ontario political parties continue to build their war chests for the next election, some local riding associations have been amassing their own.

According to data from Elections Ontario, riding associations with cabinet ministers for candidates have faired particularly well when it comes to fundraising in advance of the next election. It's a trend the province has seen before — even though the party in power was different and the restaurants and event halls of pre-pandemic political life have since given way to Zoom rooms.

Records show the Progressive Conservative riding associations of Ajax (represented by Minister Rod Phillips), Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes (represented by Minister Steve Clark), Don Valley North (represented by PC MPP Vincent Ke), Brampton South (represented by Minister Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria) and Lambton—Kent—Middlesex (represented by Minister Monte McNaughton) received the most in contributions of all associations, of all parties in 2020.

In 2019, it was the PC associations of King—Vaughan (represented by Minister Stephen Lecce), Don Valley North (Ke), Lambton—Kent—Middlesex (McNaughton), Nipissing (represented by Minister Vic Fedeli) and Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes (Clark) that led the way.

There was a similar pattern prior to the last election. In 2015, Liberal then-cabinet ministers were the most powerful fundraisers of the day. The party's Vaughan association, then represented by former minister, now Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, received the most in contributions, followed by the Liberal associations of Ottawa West—Nepean (represented by then-minister Bob Chiarelli), Markham—Unionville (represented by then-minister Michael Chan) and Mississagua South (represented by then-minister Charles Sousa).

The fifth spot was held by the PC association in Kitchener—Conestoga, represented by former MPP Michael D. Harris (not to be confused with Mike Harris Jr., who represents it today.)

But then the cash-for-access scandal broke.

In 2016, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail exposed the practice of Liberal cabinet ministers in the Kathleen Wynne government hosting pricey fundraisers with stakeholders in their own ministries, trading cash for access to powerful decision-makers, while those cabinet members were expected to meet high fundraising targets.

In the wake of it, the Wynne government passed legislation banning corporate and union donations and reducing the donation limit for individuals from $33,250 to $3,600 – $1,200 to a party, $1,200 to the candidates of a party in an election period and $1,200 to the constituency associations or nomination contestants of a party. (This applies in years with an election but no leadership races, which allow another $1,200 and used to have no cap). The new law also prohibited MPPs, candidates, party leaders, nomination contestants, leadership contestants, and some political staffers from attending fundraising events.

The party halted its fundraising in 2016 before passing the law by the end of the year.

Since then, the Doug Ford government has reversed some of those changes. Corporate and union donations remain banned, but the prohibition on attending fundraisers has been lifted. Legislation passed in February increased the personal donation limit for a second time, to $9,900. (This is made up of $3,300 to the party, $3,300 to its candidates in an election period, and another $3,300 to the constituency associations or nomination contestants of a party, plus an additional $3,300 in the event of a leadership race).

In the Wynne government days, and now, candidates and MPPs can help raise money for the central party as well as their own riding associations, with the latter nominally meant to fund their own campaigns. But the money doesn't have to stay local — riding funds can be legally transferred to the central party or other candidates. Today, most of the top fundraising riding associations have far more in the bank than they will be legally allowed to spend on their candidate's campaign in the coming election.

And riding associations don't necessarily need candidates to raise funds in the first place. For example, Elections Ontario data show five PC riding associations were among the top fundraisers of 2016, before they had nominated candidates, only to transfer that money out of the riding before the next election. At that time, corporate donations were legal but subject to certain caps, including on a per-association basis, and the records for those associations show contributions from some of the same corporate donors to multiple ridings.

You can explore the province's top fundraisers, according to riding association hauls, by year in the chart below.

This chart shows the total donations made to candidates in an election and their constituency associations, broken down by fundraising period, showing the top 20 fundraisers for each year from 2014 to 2020, as well as the two general election periods in that time. If you hover your cursor over each bar, a pop-up will indicate how much each association or candidate raised and what position the politician they supported at the time held, such as election candidate, MPP, cabinet minister or premier. You can select the year, or election, using the drop-down menu at the top. All records are from Elections Ontario. 


Former cabinet ministers speak out

When the Wynne government held committee hearings on changing the election finance laws in 2016, former Liberal cabinet minister John Gerretsen gave some barn-burning testimony.

The former attorney general and Kingston and the Islands MPP, who served from 1995 to 2014, confirmed that the party had given him a fundraising quota while he was in cabinet and they'd only gotten higher since he'd left office.

He warned the MPPs about the influence of money on politics and urged them to crack down on fundraising significantly and implement a fair system of taxpayer-funded subsidies in its place.

Gerretsen still holds that view today.

"The more you take money out of politics, the better it is," he told QP Briefing, when reached by phone. "The moment somebody gives you money, you may be affected by it."

He said he's never known any politician to be outright bought — deciding one way on an issue simply because of a $1,000 cheque. "It's kind of, like, you give me $1,000 and you've got an issue, I may take a look at it a little bit more seriously, and in a slightly different way, than if I don't know you from a hole in the ground."

Gerretsen wasn't surprised to hear that the riding associations supporting ministers for re-elections have been getting the most contributions, as it is ministers that are the draw of what he described as Toronto fundraisers — attended by lobbyists and representatives of business interests.

Close to elections that money gets spread around, he added, with the same donors giving money to the opposition candidates as well, in case they're elected this time.

"That the only way that we can make sure that the best policy decisions are made by whoever is in power is that money does not play a role in how that decision gets made," Gerretsen said. "And the only way you can do that is to publicly finance election campaigns and the party machinery that operates between elections."

John Milloy, the Liberal MPP for Kitchener Centre from 2003 to 2014 and a member of both Wynne and McGuinty's cabinets (and a QP Briefing columnist), said he shares Gerretsen's views.

"I think it's time that we totally rethought fundraising," he said. "It creates uncomfortable and inappropriate relationships. I'm not suggesting people are doing things illegally but as I've said before, and I've written before, guess what, the guy who consistently buys a ticket to your fundraiser, or the woman, is going to get their call returned pretty quickly. It doesn't mean you're going to do anything unseemly, but they certainly can get a lot more attention and consistently ingratiate themselves."

Milloy argues there doesn't need to be so much money in politics in the first place.

"It may seem like a radical suggestion, but why not just end fundraising and find a system to just have the public give parties the resources they need ... to fight the campaign, period? Why do we need to see an ad every 30 seconds on TV, because the party has a whole bunch of money?"

The war chests

By the end of 2020, all of Ontario's main parties were out of debt with cash in the bank. Of the central party organizations, the Ontario NDP had the largest surplus, some nearly $6 million, and boasted about it when it launched a pre-election media blitz this spring. The PCs raised the most last year, but spent it too, leaving a $1.3 million surplus. The Liberals had just over $2 million, after digging out from some $10 million in debt after the last campaign, while the Greens had nearly $1.5 million.

Yet, the financial advantage goes to the governing party.

Over the last two years, the central PC party raised nearly $9 million, the NDP a little over $5 million, the Liberals about $3.5 million and the Greens $2.2 million — although the PC lead narrowed significantly in 2020, when the party scaled back its fundraising during the pandemic and took in about half of its 2019 haul.

At the local level, PC riding associations raised $5.5 million in 2019 and 2020, Liberal associations raised $1.5 million, NDP associations raised $1.3 million and the Greens' raised under $200,000.

The individual local PC associations with the best fundraising also built up substantial war chests by the end of 2020. For example, the PC association for Ajax, represented by Phillips, has a $393,257.40 surplus, while the other parties' riding associations in Ajax have next to nothing in the bank — $18,745.01 for the NDP, $1,217.68 for the Liberals, and $231.56 for the Greens.

The other PC associations to have raised over $100,000 in the last two years are:

  • Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes (represented by Minister Steve Clark): $304,366.21
  • Don Valley North (represented by PC MPP Vincent Ke): $283,282.13
  • Brampton South (represented by Minister Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria): $198,085.66
  • Lambton—Kent—Middlesex (represented by Minister Monte McNaughton: $214,942.80
  • King—Vaughan (represented by Minister Stephen Lecce): $309,939.87
  • Nipissing (represented by Minister Vic Fedeli): $181,832.12
  • Etobicoke Centre (represented by Minister Kinga Surma): $180,295.80
  • Pickering—Uxbridge (represented by Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy): $198,614.58
  • York—Simcoe (represented by Minister Caroline Mulroney): $185,439.81
  • Vaughan—Woodbridge (represented by Minister Michael Tibollo) -$12,726.61 (deficit)
  • Nepean (represented by Minister Lisa MacLeod) $48,017.35
  • Willowdale (represented by Minister Stan Cho) $135,348.08
  • Niagara West (represented by MPP Sam Oosterhoff) $220,181.54

The NDP has two riding associations that hit that threshold, and their balances are:

  • Brampton East (Gurratan Singh): $123,113.21
  • Toronto Danforth (Peter Tabuns): $212,020.87

The Liberal and Green associations have no riding associations that raised over $100,000 in the past two years.

In addition to the fundraising advantage, the PCs also get the highest per-vote subsidies, paid to both the central party and the riding associations: $6.4 million for the PCs in 2020, compared to $5.4 million for the NDP, $3 million for the Liberals and $640,000 for the Greens.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Attorney General Doug Downey defended the legislative changes the Ford government has made to election finances, particularly its stronger limits on third-party advertisers.

"Our government continues to firmly believe that elections in this province should be decided by the individual Ontario voters, and not by pop-up organizations, political action groups, corporations, or special interest groups. It is why we are determined to ensure wealthy interests can’t drown out the essential voice of individuals who are subject to clear and strict spending limits when they choose to support candidates or political parties who put their names on a ballot," said press secretary Natasha Krstajic.

"We moved Ontario to the middle of the pack in Canada regarding maximum contribution limits," the statement continued. "This change builds on the Ontario legislature’s decision to ban corporate and union donations in 2017 and helps ensure individuals remain at the centre of Ontario’s electoral process."

Jessica Smith Cross

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