Toronto·In Depth

Ontario political donations surge, plunge around key policy decisions, Radio-Canada finds

Corporations and lobby groups either pumped money into Ontario political parties or abruptly cut their donations in the months surrounding major policy decisions in recent years, an investigation by Radio-Canada has found.

Liberal government denies donations impact policy, but admits appearance is an issue

Radio-Canada analysis of Ontario political donations shows a correlation between industry donations, or a lack of donations, and major policy decisions. (Bruce Reeve/CBC)

Corporations and lobby groups either pumped money into Ontario political parties or abruptly cut their donations in the months surrounding major policy decisions in recent years, an investigation by Radio-Canada has found.

Yasir Naqvi, the Liberal house leader, said political fundraising does not "in any shape or form" buy policy decisions in his government.

But, he admitted: "Obviously the appearance is an issue."

Naqvi announced new fundraising rules at Queen's Park this week that will ban donations from corporations and unions in 2017 and cap donations from individual donors. The move follows months of controversy about how the political parties raise money and what influence that may have on important decision-making.

Radio-Canada reporters analyzed more than $100 million worth of donations made to the province's three biggest parties since 2005, all of which was obtained from Elections Ontario. In total, there were some 676,000 donations of $100 or more.

The data shows at least three instances where donations either swelled ahead of a major policy announcement or where a party saw their donations drop dramatically in the wake of a decision. Among Radio-Canada's key findings are:

Donations from big beer companies, microbreweries and lobby groups surged in 2013, as Kathleen Wynne's government mulled changes to the industry that would eventually lead to beer being sold in some 450 grocery stores across the province.

Canada's National Brewers, the lobby group that represented The Beer Store — which for years held a virtual monopoly on the sale of large amounts of beer in Ontario — was among the biggest donors. 

In the wake of the shakeup to beer sales, including changes to how The Beer Store operates, donations from this sector declined for all three parties.

Robert MacDermid, a political science professor at York University, said it's not surprising that the alcohol industry would act this way because it is one of several industries directly affected by provincial regulations.

"They see an opportunity to influence or maintain their monopoly," MacDermid said.

Teachers unions, who have among the biggest political donors, appear to be punishing the Liberal government for its decision to force teachers back to work after a 2012 labour dispute.

Donations from the province's biggest teachers' unions, including the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), fell from $196,533 in 2011 to $26,900 the following year.

The NDP, meanwhile, was given around $180,505 in 2011 and $116,266 from teachers' unions the following year, and continues to pull in more donations from teachers than the Liberals and Conservatives combined. The NDP counts the OSSTF as its largest single donor.

Peter Graefe, an expert in public policy at McMaster University, said teachers punished the Mike Harris government the same way in 1999.

"Since the last strike, [teachers'] donations go to the NDP," Graefe said.    

After the government's decision to stop supporting the horse racing industry, donations to the Liberals from that sector plummeted while the NDP — who opposed the cuts — received donations from that industry for the first time ever in 2011.

The Conservative Party, whose former leader Tim Hudak had made an election promise to bring slot machines to horse tracks if he was elected, made the most money from the industry, netting a total of $37,600 in 2014.

Political scientists, opposition concerned by data

While this is only a correlation, political scientists say the fact that these political donations don't fluctuate at random shows lobby groups or industries believe they have something to gain from donating to parties.

Graefe said he believes the links between provincial parties and big business and unions is a form of corruption. He said he's pleased to see Ontario adopt new legislation, and pointed out that other provinces and the federal government have rules in place.

NDP deputy leader Jagmeet Singh said in addition to the new fundraising rules, there should still be a public inquiry into the Liberal party's fundraising practices.

At Queen's Park, Singh suggested the Liberals changed the rules to hide controversy, not because of the apparent conflict of interest.

"This is exactly why we are asking for a public inquiry … to learn the truth about the Liberal political financing," 

Naqvi said he couldn't say why outside groups choose to donate to political parties but said it maintains a vibrant democracy in the province and that every party does fundraising.

"I cannot speak to the reasons for giving money. I can tell you we don't make decisions based on political donations," he said on Wednesday at Queen's Park.

Analysis by CBC Toronto's Queen's Park reporter Mike Crawley found the 10 largest donors to political parties include construction industry unions, the lobby group for big landlords and the association of insurance companies.

The proposed legislation will ban donations from corporations and unions starting in 2017 and drastically reduce the maximum annual donation from individuals.

The same Liberal bill also proposes a new annual subsidy to the parties worth $2.26 per each vote they received in the last election. It would give some $10.7 million from provincial taxpayers to the parties annually, starting next year.

How did we analyze the political donations? 

Radio-Canada analyzed some 676,000 donations over $100 made ​​to parties during general elections, by-elections or leadership races that were submitted in real time by each party through the Elections Ontario portal between January 2005 and May 2016.

These lists are checked briefly and made public by Elections Ontario, but they are compiled by each party. According to Elections Ontario it is the responsibility of each party to ensure the integrity and veracity of the figures reported in these lists.

Units in the same union and the same company subsidiaries have been consolidated for ease of understanding and analysis

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