- Sam Austin is an urban planner, writer for Spacing Atlantic and HRM council candidate for Dartmouth Centre.
The municipality will soon have the power to set rules on how politicians collect and spend money in municipal elections. We need these rules to restore public confidence and make fairer and more competitive elections. While improved regulatory powers are welcome, Bill 154 has one big flaw: it doesn’t explicitly allow HRM to offer incentives to contributors. Without incentives to create a broader base of donors, the effectiveness of regulation will be limited.
In an ideal world, funding for political campaigns would come from many contributors giving small amounts. In the Bernie Sanders model of political fundraising, there is little chance of anyone wielding undue influence.
Unfortunately, that’s not how campaigns are paid for at City Hall.
In Halifax, development interests are the largest source of money. In 2012, they provided 48 percent of the funding to the 11 councillors who accepted contributions from developers. This is cause for concern because developers have a lot to gain in planning decisions.
Councillors have said to the CBC and The Coast that they don’t let contributors influence their decisions. I believe this is largely true, but the perception of corruption can still be very damaging. The public has noticed that most of our councillors are bankrolled by the very industry that they regulate and they’ve drawn their own unflattering conclusions. The result is a loss of public confidence in the planning process.
Money from development interests may also be skewing electoral outcomes. Money is part of what politicians need to get elected, which means that candidates with cash have an advantage. If only certain types of candidates can raise money, than the perspectives represented at City Hall can narrow considerably.
Bill 154 would empower HRM to limit contributions and spending. These are important measures, but regulation only goes so far. Where there’s a will, money finds a way. Limit the amount that a contributor can give and then spouses, kids and business partners suddenly become donors while spending limits often fall prey to overly generous exemptions.
Regulation is important, but it’s more effective when paired with public funding. This is because public funding actually changes where money comes from. Tax incentives to encourage donations are standard at the federal and provincial level, while municipalities including Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg have favoured contribution rebates. Both approaches spur more people to donate, which broadens the source of campaign funding and frees candidates from relying on large donors.
A contribution rebate program could make Halifax’s elections fairer and more competitive. Since access to money can be a significant barrier for would-be politicians, a rebate program could even help make council more diverse. This is especially true for people in historically marginalized groups.
In the coming months, HRM will be consulting the public on campaign finance regulations. Until it does, we don’t know what the public appetite is for some kind of public funding model. Are the current sources of funding problematic?
Are fairer and more competitive elections worth paying for? What is the value in diversity? It’s a discussion that we should have.
Before the legislature passes Bill 154, it should amend it to make it clear that HRM has the power to adopt a contribution rebate program. Give the municipality the power to act and then let it figure out through consultation and debate what’s in the best interest of HRM’s residents.