Shining a light on the dark side of municipal campaign financing

By informing the public about who provided campaign support before the election, the public can watch for any favoritism after

Anyone who has been involved in municipal politics – at least over the past couple of decades – has heard virtually every candidate say they support increased transparency. Why do they say this and then not follow through?

Transparency makes the democratic process work better because the public can understand, and then react to the behaviour of their government and its elected representatives. They can only do this if they know what is occurring behind the scenes.

Those elected to municipal governments are, whether they like it or not, the people’s representatives, and they should be setting the overall direction for the municipalities. How does that start?  By legislating things they say are important. We can agree that transparency is a critical step to improving democracy, and consequently people running for office should be transparent, not just talk about it.

There are, of course, many activities that candidates can do to support their transparency, but the first step is to disclose who financially supported their campaigns. This issue was recently brought to the forefront during the current 2017 Calgary election. Presiding Mayor Nenshi challenged his opponent, Bill Smith, to release information on who made contributions to his campaign. Municipal elections can be very costly. For example, during the last municipal election in Toronto, John Tory, a mayoral candidate, raised and spent over $2.4 million. Spending this much money certainly helps get a candidate’s message out.

Contributions to political campaigns certainly supports democracy. But it cost lots of money to run a campaign, even in very small communities.  Unlike provincial and federal campaigning,  it is common for candidates in municipal elections to run as independents, with no party support. Individuals define their own election promises, and citizens people choose to support or not. The raising of campaign money and the donation of time allows people to run for office who could not otherwise afford a credible campaign. It also gives residents a chance to support candidates with whom they agree.

Both funding and accepting funding are part of our democratic process.

However, there is a dark side to campaign financing. People who support a candidate may expect that, when the election is over, the elected official will repay their supporter with special favours. All candidates need to understand that their responsibility is to govern for all residents, and not to give special favours to supporters.

By informing the public about who provided campaign support, the public has the information necessary to see who is supporting various candidates running for office, but they can watch what happens after the election to confirm that favoritism has not happened.

It is in the interest of citizens and taxpayers to see who has contributed to candidates before an election takes place. This information would make for better-informed voters. Today it is simple for candidates to post the names of their supporters well in advance of an election day.

Election financial statements can be easily posted within a day or two of when the funds have been accepted. There is no reason to wait until an election is over to report on supporting funds, which unfortunately is the case in most municipalities in the country.

Dr. Randy Patrick is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.


municipal candidates, fundraising, campaign financing

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