Ontario's changes to how municipal elections work, sold as a way to give unions and corporations less influence in city politics, appear to have provided more cover for these groups to support their favourite candidates, in what one city councillor says could be "the greatest dark-money loophole ever."

When the province announced in the spring it was remaking election rules, those who advocate for bans to corporate and union donations, or electoral reform, rejoiced at the progressiveness of the Liberal government.

But as the dust settles from the flurry of legislative changes, those amendments aren't quite what people expected.

Corporate and union donations will still be allowed

There has been a move afoot for a few years in some quarters to ban union and corporate donations in municipalities, as has been the case in Toronto for the last two elections. But, in Ottawa, proponents couldn't even convince council to ask the province for permission to consider such a ban, let alone implement it.

So it came as a surprise when, this past spring, the provincial government unilaterally prohibited candidates from accepting corporate and union donations.

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Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais says allowing corporations and unions to donate to third-party advertisers seems counter to the spirit of banning those sorts of donation to candidates. (CBC)

But that doesn't tell the whole story, not by a long shot.

Because in the same piece of legislation, the province will allow corporations and unions to donate up to $1,200 to third-party advertisers, which have been operating in a somewhat grey zone up until now.

Advertisers will have to register the same way candidates do, and will be allowed to run ads for or against a candidate (issue-based advertisement are exempt from regulation). These third-parties will also be to accept donations from companies and unions.

'Opening it up to third parties to then accept these contributions... and creating perhaps the greatest dark-money loophole ever, with these non-political associations being allowed to do all that activity, seems to be completely counter to the spirit of the original intention.'
- Ottawa city councillor Stephen Blais

So what was the point of banning these sorts of donations to individual candidates? Especially as the province wants to increase the amount a corporation or union can give? (More on that in a moment.)

Some councillors, who discussed the changes to the municipal election rules at Tuesday's finance and economic development committee, were puzzled by the same thing.

Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais said he was not against eliminating corporate and union donations.

"But opening it up to third parties to then accept these contributions," Blais said, "and creating perhaps the greatest dark-money loophole ever, with these non-political associations being allowed to do all that activity, seems to be completely counter to the spirit of the original intention."

How much will these third parties be able to spend? The province hasn't said yet. 

Donations proposed to increase to $1,200

Bill 68 is a wide-ranging piece of legislation that deals with all sorts of municipal issues, from the City of Toronto Act to changes to the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

But buried in a section called "Schedule 4: Amendments to Other Acts", the government proposes to increase the contribution limit to a single candidate or third-party advertiser by a whopping 60 per cent, from $750 to $1,200.

For those who argued against corporate and union donations, the increase in the contribution limit adds insult to injury. Not only will these groups still be allowed to donate to third-party campaigns, they will actually be able to contribute more than they could under the old rules.

Individuals will also be able to give more to candidates — up to $1,200 from $750 — if Bill 68 goes ahead.

Why this quietly proposed increase? It's not clear.

The contribution hike will be troubling to many. After all, some voters are concerned that the well-heeled in our society are able to have more influence on who gets elected. This is especially true of the development industry, which is over-represented in the ranks of political donors at the municipal level.

That folks in the development industry have a keen interest in city politics is understandable. Much of their business is connected to City Hall. And, as individuals, they are naturally allowed to contribute to whomever they like.

But if the point of the provincial reforms is to change the perception that some groups have inordinate influence over municipal politics, it's hard to see how raising the contribution limit will achieve that. 

Ranked-ballot voting doomed 

Even when the province has put the onus of change on municipalities, it has done so in a way that almost guarantees the status quo.

Consider the case of electoral reform: the province now allows city councils to implement ranked ballot voting, a system that invites electors to list candidates from their most to least preferred

Proponents of ranked ballots argue that it encourages more people to run, and reduces strategic voting and negative campaigning. It pushes candidates to vie to be the second choice of their opponents' supporters.

But between the inertia of voters who are reluctant to learn a new system and the built-in disincentive of current office-holders to change the voting model that put them in office, electoral reform is a hard sell.

And now the province has added one more hurdle. It is allowing ranked ballots only for council elections, while school board trustees can only be elected through the old familiar first-past-the-post system.

In other words, any municipality that decides to move to ranked ballots would have to run two separate voting processes simultaneously—one for council, another for school boards.

What city would be willing to take that on? None.

It's just the sort of reasonable justification councillors need for avoiding reform many of them don't want anyway.