A photo of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Credit: Premier of Ontario Photography / Flickr

A new report from Democracy Watch shows Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the province’s Progressive Conservatives benefitted in a big way from wealthy donors after doubling political donation limits one year ago.

The organization says the decision to double donation limits to $3,300 annually resulted in Ford making the province’s political finance system “more undemocratic,” with the Progressive Conservative’s becoming supported by wealthy donors more now than ever before.

The advocacy organization, which began back in 1993, is calling on the newly elected PC government to limit donations and loans to $100 annually, in line with campaign finance laws in Quebec. Additionally, Democracy Watch is calling for a review of per-vote funding.

“Ontario’s undemocratic, unethical donation limit is much higher than the average voter can afford and the parties are relying on wealthy donors for a lot of the money they raise, which gives those wealthy donors unethical influence over the parties,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the Money in Politics Coalition, in a Tuesday press release. “The Ford PC Party’s doubling of the donation limit has created a pay to play, cash-for-access system that allows wealthy donors to buy even more unethical influence over parties and politicians.”

Conacher also noted that the higher the donation limits, the more likely businesses and lobbyists are incentivized to funnel donations through executives and employees, something he believes Elections Ontario should conduct an audit of to make sure wealthy donors aren’t the ones informing party decision-making

Relying on data from Elections Ontario’s donations database, the organization found that 63 per cent of donations to the Ontario PC’s came from just 25 per cent of donors who each contributed $1,000 or more to party campaigns, up from 50 per cent of donations from only 20 per cent of donors in 2020. 

While the PC’s benefitted the most from the increase in donation limits, Democracy Watch determined they weren’t the only party to disproportionately benefit from wealthy donors. 

The Ontario Liberal Party received nearly half of their donations from just eight per cent of donors who donated $1,000 or more, compared to 15 per cent of donations from five per cent of donors in 2020. Meanwhile, the Greens received 51 per cent of campaign dollars from roughly 21 per cent of donors who donated $1,000 or more and the NDP received 30 per cent from just 2.7 per cent of wealthy donors. 

The report from Democracy Watch comes as PressProgress published a story revealing that Russian officials sought the help of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives “in an effort to flow Russian money into Ontario amid U.S. sanctions.

“The backchannel communications involved Russian government officials, expelled diplomats, Russian corporate entities sanctioned by the United States, as well as Ontario PC insiders linked to wealthy Ontario developers,” the article reads.

As Queen’s Park Today reported in January, not only did the director of a company who received the exclusive rights to run immunization clinics donate the maximum amount to the Progressive Conservatives, so did their spouse and relatives. 

While pay-for-play politics is nothing new in Canadian federal or provincial politics, the Ford government has also seemingly returned the favour, according to a 2021 National Observer investigative feature that found the PCs used “controversial special orders to allow developments on sites involving environmental concerns 14 times since 2018.” Nine of the orders benefitted developers who donated more than $250,000 to the party and Ontario Proud in the 2018 election.

Now, Democracy Watch and the Money in Politics Coalition, which is made up of 50 groups with more than three million total members, are calling for widespread electoral reform that would prevent wealthy donors from leveraging governments for their benefit.

In addition to the $100 per voter annual donation limit, Democracy Watch is recommending governments set a limit of what candidates can donate to their own campaigns, also at a cap of $100 per year. They’re also calling for a ban on loans to political parties unless they come from a public fund as well as stronger enforcement and harsher penalties for campaign finance violations.

Aside from the recommendations, Democracy Watch is urging Elections Ontario to conduct an audit “to ensure that businesses are not funnelling donations through their executives and family members, and to ensure that lobbyists are not holding fundraising events to be ‘bundlers’ of donations as a way of having undue influence over parties or politicians.”

The report on wealthy donors driving provincial parties in Ontario comes one day after Democracy Watch issued a report card on Ford’s first term as premier, giving the PC Party a blistering F rating due to 25 “seriously unethical and undemocratic actions.” Those actions include issuing a one-page campaign platform ahead of this week’s provincial election.

While the PC’s received an F in all five areas of the report card—honest, ethical, open, representative, and waste-preventing—the Green’s received the best overall grade of C-. The Liberals and NDP both received a D.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...