February 1 2013
The Montreal Gazette
Getting elected in Toronto is about cheques, balances and maybe a few loopholes.
Without the benefit of a party machine, candidates for city hall rely on the kindness and cash of friends, family and citizens who care enough about the political process to reach into their pockets.
Those donors can expect to get a cheque for anywhere from 66 to 75 per cent of their contribution, as long as their candidates submit their campaign books for an audit.
Yet even councillors who endorse Toronto’s rebate program said there are ways to finagle around it and fudge the books.
“Election finance remains one of the most difficult issues,” councillor Adam Vaughan said. “You can put rules in place that are so onerous that they protect the incumbent, or you can put rules in place that are so loose that they almost incite corruption.”
Under Toronto’s rebate program, candidates for city council are allowed to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on their campaign, according to a fixed formula based on the most recent census data for their wards.
Individuals are allowed to donate to a political campaign, up to a maximum of $750 for one candidate and a maximum of $5,000 city-wide. For every $100 to $300, the city reimburses donors $75; for donations between $301 and $750, the rebate drops to 50 per cent. An individual who donates $750 ends up getting a refund for 66 per cent.
“That’s part of the cost of democracy,” said Joe Mihevc, who noted that after 20 years in office he has no trouble raising enough money to mount a campaign. “The rebate system is a very kind system and it allows individuals who have done their work to raise the money, they just have to have a bit of smarts.
Mihevc said he never has trouble raising enough money to fund his campaign. “It is imminently doable. No one is restricted from doing it. And the spending limit makes sure you can’t buy an election.”
Beginning with the last election in 2010, no corporate or union donations are permitted.
Janet Davis, who represents Beaches-East York, isn’t persuaded that’s leak-proof protection.
“I think there are still probably corporate donations that are happening, with donations being made in the name of individuals. Before we moved to that system, there were some councillors who had 80 per cent of their funds come from corporations and lobbyists,” Davis said.
“We have eliminated developers and lobbyists funding campaigns, technically and legally. … Those who argued against getting rid of corporate and union donations said: ‘You are putting it underground, now we can see it. At least before, you could see it and point to it and say this guy has been funded entirely by a developer.’ But now it is all individual donations.”
“There could be a loophole where if you are a union boss and you have a quiet meeting with a bunch of members and say ‘I’d like all of you 30 people to spend $750 out of your own money and we will figure things out later,’ ” said Josh Matlow, the rookie councillor for Ward 22 (St. Paul’s.)
“It would be very hard to police. It would be very hard to know every conversation that happens everywhere.”