This past June 7th the Ontario legislature passed Bill 181, the Municipal Elections Modernization Act. This change to municipal election finance rules is a huge step forward for democracy in our province. Here’s why.
Bill 181 includes important changes to the Municipal Elections Act which mean that:
- Municipalities and school boards MUST ban corporate and union contributions to municipal election campaigns
- Municipalities have the option to use ranked ballots in Council elections
- Third party spending by candidates during election campaigns will now be regulated.
For many years, Environmental Defence has been a leading voice pointing out the need for reform of Ontario’s municipal elections campaign finance rules. In 2010, we released two important reports: “Money and Politics in Simcoe County” (March 2010), and “Under the Influence” (October 2010). Both reports highlighted the high jacking of urban planning by corporate interests, driven largely by profit motives rather than concern about the wellbeing of the community or taxpayers. The insights from those reports hold true today. Take a good look at the way cities and towns have developed in Ontario and you’ll see a process where some elected officials consistently advocate for corporate interests; where the physical landscape is increasingly a gray sea of urban sprawl; where sensitive environments have been destroyed; and, where suffocating gridlock, lack of transit and huge costs to taxpayers is the norm.
Corporate funding of municipal elections has been a big problem for a long time. As Campaign Fairness, who spearheaded the call for reform, point out: Studies show that “Candidates getting financial support from the development industry are more likely to get elected than those who don’t. There is also a relationship between high development dollar contributions to candidate’s election campaigns and councils that push for high levels of development. For example, in 2006, the winning Councillors and Mayor in Halton Region got just 12% of their campaign contributions from the development industry, and they proposed a Natural Heritage System that would preserve 36% of the Region’s developable land. In contrast, Durham winners received 41% of their campaign contributions from the development industry, and they used inflated growth and population numbers to justify development the province considered unnecessary.”
Many other jurisdictions have already banned corporate and union donations including the City of Toronto, provinces such as Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Quebec along with Elections Canada. It was high time Ontario moved to remove undue influence from corporate interests on urban planning decisions and to level the playing field for all candidates running in municipal elections.
The ongoing provincial review of the Greenbelt and Growth plans is the other part of the solution for smarter compact growth, livable communities and a protected Greenbelt where prime farmland, local food and our collective water sources and natural areas are protected. Some in the development industry are working hard to roll back protections to the Greenbelt and are trying to ensure sprawl development dominates even though people want better transit, more housing options and walkable neighbourhoods. Removing corporate donations from municipal elections will help make sure the development industry does not have undue influence in the municipal implementation of the updated Greenbelt and Growth plans.
While we won’t see major Council chamber improvements until the next municipal election in 2018, the province has taken a huge step to recognizing the problems and dealing with them head on. A lot of that had to do with your support and the hard work of many people. We want to recognize the important leadership of individuals like Robert Eisenberg, Co-founder and President of Campaign Fairness, who along with the board and staff who worked effectively on this campaign.
Lastly, thank you for making your voice heard on these important issues over the years, it’s had a huge impact! Now we need to direct that same level of support towards protection of the Greenbelt and Smart Growth in Ontario as the review of these two plans come to a close.