Canada’s political fundraising rules are getting another overhaul, as the Liberal government is set to introduce a bill that will force all parties to follow stricter standards on transparency in fundraising events.
The federal legislation, coming on Wednesday, is expected to include largely the same measures the Liberals brought in for their own party following controversy over “cash-for-access” events, where well-heeled donors paid hefty ticket prices to mix with cabinet ministers behind closed doors.
Democratic Institutions Minister Katrina Gould outlined the broad scope of the bill earlier in May.
“We will be bringing forward legislation to give Canadians information about fundraisers involving cabinet ministers, party leaders, and leadership contestants,” she said in the House of Commons on May 1.
“Canadians will know about the events in advance, where they are being held, the cost to attend, and they will know who attended them.”
The Liberals changed their own fundraising practices earlier this year, following months of heavy scrutiny over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other cabinet ministers meeting with donors in secret. The party now posts fundraisers involving ministers on its website, holds them in public spaces, and publishes lists of who attended (though it hasn’t yet posted the attendees for the five events held so far).
The government is still working on a larger-scale package of reforms to election rules, expected in the fall. Gould’s mandate letter promised a review of what political parties and third-party groups can spend both during and between elections — but it remains to be seen whether the government will bring in restrictions on foreign funding, as Conservative MPs and Senators have long been pushing for.
On Tuesday, Senator Linda Frum introduced a private member’s bill to crack down on foreign funds, which she and others have alleged were behind some of the third-party groups targeting the Conservatives in the 2015 election.
Registered third parties can include unions, activists, trade associations and any other entity that spends more than $500 on election advertising.
The Conservatives have been particularly focused on the activities of Leadnow, which organized strategic voting campaigns in favour of whichever candidate had the best chance of beating a Conservative in a riding.
Canada’s elections commissioner, Yves Côté, has said he received numerous complaints involving registered third parties in the past election, “many more complaints than had been filed with respect to the previous election in 2011,” he told a Senate committee in April.
Under current rules, there are two general loopholes available to third parties: they only need to report contributions made in the six months leading up to an election writ, and during an election they only have spending limits on advertising. The costs of hiring staff, conducting polls, holding rallies, running a website and any other activities that don’t directly fit the category of “advertising” are not regulated by Elections Canada, as they are for political parties.
For example, a registered third party could accept any amount of foreign money prior to the six-month pre-election period and then use it for non-advertising purposes during an election, and wouldn’t be breaking any rules. (Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand told a Senate committee last November he’s seen no evidence that this has occurred, however, and noted that no third party came close to the spending limit in the past election.)
Frum’s bill, which is unlikely to pass but could get incorporated into future government legislation, would amend the Canada Elections Act to explicitly forbid a registered third party from accepting “a contribution for any purposes related to an election if the contribution is from any foreign source.”
Both Côté and Mayrand have already suggested there should be a tightening of the rules governing third-party spending and reporting.
“I would suggest that third-party engagement in Canada’s electoral process will likely continue to grow,” Côté told the committee in April. “For that reason, it may be time for Parliament to re-examine the third-party regime that was put in place 17 years ago with a view to ensuring a level playing field is maintained for all participants.”