By Ted Nickerson and Mark Brooks
There’s an old joke about requiring politicians to wear a NASCAR like uniforms that tell us who their sponsors are. In Canada we like to think we are above such nonsense thanks to a ban on corporate donations. But this is no defense against special interest groups, political action committees and lobby groups trying to control our democracy by supporting candidates in a variety of ways including “like minded” advertising. As a federal election seems to be on the horizon, it is time to see what patches our local anti-airport MP will be wearing this year.
Jennifer O’Connell, MP Pickering-Uxbridge, is vehemently opposed to an airport on the Federal Pickering lands, or any form of economic development for that matter. The MP insists that an airport is not needed despite a recent million-dollar government report from industry experts that say it is needed and suggests that it break ground in 2026. She is insisting that the only acceptable use of the billion dollar publicly owned Pickering airport lands is for agriculture use by an anointed few. As aviation supporters it is only natural for us to ask the question, how is her campaign financed?
With the probability that a federal election will be called sometime this year, lets look at how the MPs 2019 campaign was financed. Besides understanding where MP O’Connell’s financing came from, this review became just as much a discovery of how political financing at the federal levels actually works. We found that political financing is in general not at all what most voters would expect.
We encourage everyone to review the information on campaign financing for any candidate or political riding association of interest by doing searches of the database that can be found on the elections Canada website here.
Read on to discover how we used this database to understand an MPs campaign financing.
How Contributions are reported:
The Elections Canada website has now published records from the 2019 campaign and is the obvious place to start to answer the question of who is donating money to an MP’s campaign. But if you search the Elections Canada website for MP O’Connell under “Contributions”, you will receive a response of “NIL”. No contributors/No money donated to her campaign. Searching under the MP’s name under “Financial Returns” also produced the same “NIL” response.
This is not what you may have expected to find but turns out to be consistent with other MPs. It highlights a change in campaign accounting employed by the national Liberal, Conservative and NDP parties. It appears that at least the current office holders (the incumbent MPs) do not accept direct contributions. Instead, all contribution flow to their party’s local riding associations. In fact, while candidates can contribute to their own campaign, they are instead donating to their respective riding associations.
Why would they do it this way? One reason might be efficiency. A riding association should have more resources (skills, funds) than a candidate; seeks donations for all years of a sitting Parliament, something especially important for parties not holding the riding seat and therefore without a candidate. Another would be party oversight, although as you will see below, this may not be foolproof in preventing things from going awry.
The downside of this arrangement is that it is less transparent to the public who the contributors are to a given campaign and candidate. It provides the opportunity for a candidate to truthfully but hypocritically state “I did not receive financial support from (insert name/company etc.)” when their riding association did on their behalf.
Once an election is called, the local riding association can then transfer money to the candidate to cover campaign expenses. The candidate then proceeds to make expenditures necessary to hopefully successfully run their campaign. The candidate or their riding association must file a detailed report of those expenditures with Elections Canada. The report filed for MP O’Connell for the 2019 election held no surprises in that respect.
To find the information of interest, one has to search for the annual financial return for each registered riding association for a given time period. Note that a consolidated report is not provided for each sub-category of financing – you have to search each calendar year and then total the figures.
Pickering – Uxbridge Federal Liberal Association:
In 2019, the Pickering Uxbridge association transferred $76,000 (designated as monetary) to candidate O’Connell for her campaign. The association also provided additional non-monetary support.
Campaign funding appears to flow to a riding association from two main sources: Individual contributions, and Transfers Received/Sent to and from other riding associations and the individuals who donated to them.
Individual Contributions Received
Looking at the 2017-2019 list of contributors to the Pickering-Uxbridge Liberal riding association produced no new surprises. No surprise names, people gave in amounts small to big – none exceeded the Election Canada limits.
One Interesting observation: Well known individuals associated with the land development industry donated $12,600, almost 17% of the $76,000 provided by the riding association to MP O’Connell. Doubly interesting in that MP O’Connell opposes development of the federal airport lands.
Transfers Received / Transfers Sent:
To the average voter sending/receiving transfers from other ridings is a surprising source of funding. While, per Elections Canada, a candidate can donate $1,575 to another candidate, a party’s riding associations appears to be able to transfer to and receive an unlimited monetary contribution from other riding associations. A quick search of the Election Canada website shows that a number of the Liberal, Conservative and NDP riding associations have done this in the past.
To finance O’Connell’s re-election in 2019 the Pickering – Uxbridge Liberal riding associated received $10,000 in total ($5000 each) from the Kingston and the Islands and Brampton East Liberal associations.
That’s 13% of the funding the riding associated provided to candidate O’Connell in 2019.
This raises a number of questions:
- Do the contributors in these other ridings know their funds are being sent to other ridings to assist other same-party candidates?
- If they do, do they agree with the practice? After all, it was their money that was being solicited to help their local candidate.
- While it appears to be legal, is it fair to the donors or to the other candidates in the receiving riding, especially those without a major party affiliation?
- Lastly, in the 2017-2019 period, MP O’Connell transferred $34,584.31 from her “Campaign Account” to the Pickering Uxbridge Liberal Association. Where did this money come from? Was it unspent sums from her campaign?
While discovering that riding associations transfer funds to each other was a surprise, the Brampton East transfer is interesting considering recent events. On May 17th, 2018, the Brampton East Liberal riding association transferred $5000 to the Pickering–Uxbridge Liberal riding association. At the time of the transfer in 2018, both Raj Grewal, MP for Brampton East, and Jennifer O’Connell were MPs on the important House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance.
MP Grewal resigned in 2018. The former Liberal MP, Raj Grewal is now facing criminal charges. It is alleged that he took out millions of dollars in personal loans without telling the federal ethics commissioner, that he used his political position to solicit those loans, and that he used his government funded constituency office budget for his own benefits. He has been charged by the RCMP with four counts of breach of trust and one count of fraud over $5000. None of those charges have been proven in court.
Further, the Elections Canada website shows that in 2017, Brampton East association received $4000 each from Brampton West, Brampton North and Brampton South. In 2018, Brampton East transferred $5000 to Pickering Uxbridge, $6,121 to Brampton West and $250 to Chateauguay-Lacolle associations. This dollar shuffling makes it difficult to track who is donating to whom. Is this why it is taking place?
It is hoped that more details about the Brampton East riding associations financial issues will be made public in the upcoming criminal trail of the former MP.
Let’s be clear! The Pickering Uxbridge Liberal association and MP O’Connell haven’t done anything wrong in relation to the transfer received from Brampton East , but once you have seen it, the optics are not good. The link to Brampton East, however innocent, is unfortunate.
This exercise was worthwhile. We discovered that a significant amount of MP O’Connell’s 2019 campaign funding indirectly came from the land development industry, and from other Liberal riding associations. There is a $34,000 funding question that would be worth having answered.
And the local riding associations holding the primary role in campaign funding was a true surprise.
The Elections Canada website only provides candidates’ and riding associations’ data for past elections. What is happening now in the lead-up to the next election will not be known for a few years after that election.
History though has a way of repeating itself. Don’t expect any future findings to be significantly different.