City council should squirm over province's decision to let councillors ban corporate donations (David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen)

The province is going to let Ontario’s cities ban corporate and union campaign contributions and use a new kind of ballot for their next elections, if they want.

This could, and should, make life uncomfortable for a lot of Ottawa politicians.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin announced the plans Monday. The first idea arrives in Ottawa nearly dead: city councillors, who collectively get a whole bunch of money from corporations especially, overwhelmingly rejected even asking for the power to stop them last year, because obviously the system works fine.

At the city level, union donations are a few thousand dollars in total, spread across two dozen races. We’re really talking about corporate money — property-development money in particular.

Corporations can’t vote but they can underwrite campaigns.

One argument against banning corporate donations — one I’ve made myself — is that if you do it, business owners will still give money but under their own names rather than through their companies. To make the connection as your pore over campaign finance returns, you’ll have to know not just what a particular corporation does but who owns it.

The thing is, that’s the case under the system we’ve got now.

Richcraft Homes gave $4,750 to candidates in the last election, for instance; it’s owned by the Singhal family, and assorted people with that last name gave $11,700 personally (Kevin Yemm, a Richcraft vice-president married to a Singhal, gave another $4,500). Claridge Homes and its affiliates gave nearly $3,500; the family behind it are the Malhotras, who gave more than $3,000 personally. Those are just a couple of big, well-known corporations closely associated to particular families, easily tracked.

Plenty of obscure ones give money, too, including companies identified only by numbers. Who’s behind 1781637 Ontario Inc., on Gladstone Avenue downtown, and why did they pump the maximum $750 into Bob Monette’s, Allan Hubley’s and Tim Tierney’s campaigns in 2014? At a glance, heaven knows. But it turns out they share an address with Claridge Homes.

People with a lot of money to give politicians don’t contribute from corporate accounts instead of personal ones. They use both, multiplying their power as donors.

Mayor Jim Watson opposed asking for more power to restrict them, ostensibly because he didn’t want to add to the city’s list of things it wants from the provincial government. Well, now the city will get the power without having to ask. Your move, Mr. Mayor.

His press secretary said he was on a plane Monday — he’d been at the Juno Awards in Calgary — and unavailable to comment.

Maybe the provincial Liberal government and Kathleen Wynne’s own scandal over ministers’ shaking down corporations they regulate for money will change councillors’ attitudes. But it’ll take a major about-face, because only five councillors (Tobi Nussbaum, David Chernushenko, Michael Qaqish, Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney) voted even to ask the province for the power to ban those donations, let alone to use it.

There is more hope here for ranked ballots.

Those let voters indicate second, third and fourth choices for mayor and ward councillor, with losing candidates having their votes transferred to voters’ next choices until somebody gets a majority. The idea is to reduce strategic voting — people’s deciding to cast their one vote for a candidate they don’t much like in an attempt to stop another candidate they like less.

“When there’s a ranked ballot, you need to get along. You need to have a substantive discussion about the issues because that is what the electors demand,” McMeekin said. “You may need to count on somebody else’s supporters to put you over the 50 per cent.”

Do incumbents dislike it? Yeah, maybe, McMeekin said. But so what?

“I guess my rejoinder to that is if an incumbent’s doing a good job, particularly as the candidate with the highest name recognition, this ought to be a bonus to them,” the minister said. When a councillor gets elected with 15 or 20 per cent of the vote in a crowded race, that’s not democracy at its best, he said.

Watson has said he’s open to at least talking about ranked ballots, maybe because, as a centrist, he’s likely to be many voters’ second choice even if he should come up against stiff opposition. Regardless, it’s an obviously good idea, and one a new provincial law should put in city council’s hands very soon.

Source: Ottawa Citizen