Stiffer rules needed on money spent by third parties in elections, says report

A think tank report commissioned by Elections Canada is recommending some stiff new restrictions on money raised and spent by advocacy groups to influence the outcome of federal election campaigns.
Elections Canada information officer Steven Moyer tapes a voting direction arrow sign to the Fire Hall in the village of Kerwood, Ont., Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

A think tank report commissioned by Elections Canada is recommending some stiff new restrictions on money raised and spent by advocacy groups to influence the outcome of federal election campaigns.

And the recommendations are being welcomed by the Trudeau government, which is promising legislation along these lines sometime this spring.

In a bid to ensure foreign money is not involved in the Canadian political process, the Public Policy Forum report says only citizens who are eligible to vote should be allowed to make donations to parties, candidates or advocacy groups — known as third parties — that try to influence how people vote.

Moreover, it says third parties should face the same restrictions on donations — an annual maximum of $1,575 per individual — as political parties.

There is currently no cap on donations to third parties and they can accept unlimited amounts of money from businesses, unions and other organizations which are banned from contributing to political parties.

The report further recommends that every cent a third party spends on electoral communications should be reported and limited — not just what they spend on advertising, which is all that's currently regulated.

And to enable effective tracking of their spending, the report says third parties should be required to open separate bank accounts, into which they would deposit all donations for electoral purposes and out of which they would pay for all election-related activities.

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The report also recommends that spending limits be applied to all political entities — parties, candidates and outside advocacy groups — six months prior to the launch of a federal election campaign, not just during the official election writ period.

"Current limits only kick in after the campaigning horse has left the barn," the report says, noting that the advent of fixed election dates has resulted in parties and groups ramping up their spending months before an election is called, taking advantage of the absence of regulation during the pre-writ period.

The report is the result of a roundtable discussion involving academics, political strategists and journalists. It was hosted by the Public Policy Forum last October, at the behest of Elections Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised legislation to regulate pre-writ spending by political parties and his government has indicated it's planning to introduce legislation sometime this spring that would impose more stringent rules regarding money raised and spent by third parties.

"One of our top priorities is strengthening and safeguarding Canada's democratic institutions from foreign interference," Nicky Cayer, a spokesperson for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, said in a statement Wednesday in response to the think tank report.

"Canada has robust finance rules governing political fundraising from foreign actors, but our government will further strengthen and clarify these rules to ensure greater transparency around third party financing, close loopholes in the law, and ensure a stronger defence against foreign interference in our democratic process."


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