Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

St. John's is phasing out corporate and union election donations. What reforms could come next?

Some candidates in the St. John's municipal campaign aren't waiting for a ban that will take effect in four years' time: they are already refusing donations from companies and unions. As John Gushue writes, there are also calls to look at more reforms, including who gets to vote, and when and how.

Some candidates are already refusing donations that will be banned 4 years from now

Residents of St. John's — and other municipalities in Newfoundland and Labrador — go to the polls on Sept. 28. (John Gushue/CBC)

There's a familiar phrase in politics that's been around in one variation or another for generations, including the title of a book of essays by the late American columnist Molly Ivins: You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You.

I've heard several local politicians quote this or something similar over the years, sometimes as a lament, other times as a defence. The phrase gets to an open secret in politics: donations can compromise a candidate, plain and simple.

In St. John's, the current campaign leading to a vote on Sept. 28 will be the last election where corporations and trade unions will be allowed to donate to a candidate.

It may not have rocked your world, but council made a decision last October to phase out these contributions. The ban will take effect for the 2025 race. For this one, there's a cap of 50 per cent (on a spending ceiling of $19,800) that can come from those sources.

Some candidates aren't waiting for 2025.

"People are suspicious of government," said Jess Puddister, who is running for one of the four at-large seats on council. Puddister's motivation is to deal with "the bottleneck for solving climate change," which she sees in politics, not science.

Jess Puddister, left, and Anne Malone are both campaigning for at-large seats on St. John's city council. Both are refusing to accept corporate and union donations. (Jess Puddister/Twitter)

"If people don't have faith in politics, which is the system we have to enact change, we get stuck, and that causes harm," she told CBC Radio's On The Go. "Corporate and union donations hurt the trust that everyday people have in government. So we have to do everything in our power to rebuild that trust, so politicians and scientists can do the work of addressing those big systemic issues."

Puddister and another at-large candidate, Meghan Hollett, spoke with On The Go host Ted Blades on Thursday about their decision to eschew those donations.

LISTEN | Meghan Hollett and Jess Puddister explain their decisions on campaign donations in this conversation with On The Go's Ted Blades: 

Both are seeking their first seat on council. Both also represent a reform movement that's been building for years, and noted that another five candidates so far have pledged to not accept such donations.

"The thing is, at the end of the day, it's people that vote," said Hollett. "Corporations don't vote. Unions don't vote. It's people that vote. That is the support that I want to see."

Corporate donations have been a dirty word on the left for a long time, but this movement also targets union donations, which typically help bankroll NDP campaigns provincially and federally. 

Hollett and Puddister said it's all about being accountable to citizens, and not to an outside group.

"We know that city staff are unionized. So if the city is going through a collective bargaining process and I've accepted a donation from the union that represents those workers, it doesn't matter whether I have any involvement in the negotiations or not," Puddister said.

"People may just take that as proof that I'm compromised."

Meghan Hollett is seeking her first term on St. John's city council. (MeghanHollett.com)

These changes did not come out of a vacuum. Some civic groups, particularly the Citizens' Assembly of Newfoundland and Labrador, have been advocating for reforms for a while.

Coun. Ian Froude shepherded the donation reforms through council in the last term. 

Why stop at money?

Effectively, the era of businesses swamping a city election in St. John's is already in the past.

But — and this is a big but — what about other municipalities? It seems logical that the next big step will be a change to the Municipalities Act, which governs municipal politics.

And what about other reforms? For instance, the concept of ranked ballots, which have been tried in other jurisdictions, have the potential to amplify candidates who struggle in contests where name recognition, among other (dis)advantages, can be overpowering. You'll remember that democratic reform activists felt burned when Justin Trudeau's Liberals dallied with reforming the first-past-the-post system … and then didn't.

As for other reforms, I wonder if a rubric that's familiar in journalism — the five Ws (and one H) — may be helpful to think about ways that democratic access can be improved, at St. John's city hall and elsewhere.

Those letters stand for who, what, where, when, why and, yup, how. (And, also, how much. That's the money part.)

Who: Right now, only citizens can vote, not residents. This means that people with permanent residency cannot, now matter how long they've lived here (nor how much they pay in taxes without representation).

The City of St. John's will again use mail-in ballots for this election. (CBC)

When, where, how: Voting access can be about more than casting a ballot in a specific place at a specific time. The COVID-19 pandemic opened some avenues for reforms that have been percolating all along. Mail-in voting is now mainstream (notwithstanding some wildly inaccurate conspiracy theories drifting from the States and elsewhere). To me, other options — like voting by phone or online — are destined to happen sooner or later, so why not hammer out the kinks and eliminate security risks, and make it easier for people to participate?

What: Is the municipal ballot the only tool for public access to decision making? Could council be bolder than organizing dry consultations and "what we heard" documents? Could town halls involve some kind of direct influence? 

Why: This is a tricky one. Motivating people to get involved in the democratic process is a challenge at any level.

But for Hollett and Puddister, among others, that foundational reform is directly connected to cleansing politics not just of undue influence, but the perception of it.

We're a month out from the municipal elections. Let's see what happens next.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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