Proposed Ontario election law changes an attempt to silence critics: Opposition

·4 min read

TORONTO — Proposed changes to Ontario's election laws introduced Thursday by the Progressive Conservatives were slammed by the Opposition as an attempt to silence critics amid mounting failures in the province's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government said the election law reforms were aimed at limiting third-party advertising and boosting voter participation.

Attorney General Doug Downey, who introduced the bill, said one of the proposed changes would extend the $637,200 spending limit placed on third-party advertisers from six months before an election to a year.

“Ontario is the only place where we count third party in the millions (of dollars) instead of in the thousands,” he said in an interview. “And we've heard from Elections Ontario that they have concerns with that dynamic.”

Third parties, such as the conservative group Ontario Proud and union-led Working Families Coalition, have played a significant role in recent provincial elections, launching extensive advertising campaigns in bids to sway the vote.

The province said more than $5 million was spent by third-party advertisers before and during the 2018 election. The next provincial vote is set to take place in the spring of 2022.

The bill also proposes to limit what the government calls “collusion” between those third parties and political parties.

“We just want transparency and fairness,” Downey said. “When we talk with third parties spending their ($637,200), we want to make sure that there's rules around them sharing information, common vendors, common contributors, use of funds from foreign sources.”

The amount individuals can donate to a party, candidate or constituency association would also double from $1,650 to $3,300 a year.

New Democrat legislator Taras Natyshak slammed the proposed limits on third-party advertisers.

“At a time when long-term care advocates, organizations of health leaders, and the families of nursing home residents are speaking up about the horrors in long-term care, it looks like Ford is trying to silence his critics,” he said in a statement.

Natyshak said doubling the individual contribution limit will drag the government back to the days of "cash-for-access" fundraising.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said while he supports some measures in the bill, like continuing the per-vote subsidy, increasing donation limits is a problem.

"My biggest concern is that they're slowly opening the door back up to pay-to-play politics," he said. "How many regular Ontarians can afford to contribute that much to a candidate, constituency association and a party?"

University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman said the rule changes on individual donations will benefit both the Progressive Conservative government and the Liberal party, but stressed they won’t be the sole factor in deciding the 2022 election.

“When the current government came to power, defeating the Liberals wasn't because of money,” he said. “It was because people essentially wanted a change.”

Wiseman said the new limits placed on third-party advertisers might be a way the government thinks it’s giving itself a leg up, but the groups will find ways to maximize their message.

“This is changing things at the margins,” he said. “Most groups will just try to spend the money as close as they can to election day.”

The bill also proposes to extend the number of advance polling days from five to 10.

"Ultimately, we want to make it easier and safer for people to vote," Downey said.

The legislation will, for the first time, clarify the use of social media accounts by provincial legislators.

It will also give Elections Ontario more enforcement powers, and the ability to fine individuals or groups it deems to have violated election rules.

Currently, the province's chief electoral officer must report infractions to the Ministry of the Attorney General, which then decides whether to prosecute.

Downey said the change would align Ontario with federal practices.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version, based on information provided by the government, said the spending limit placed on third parties six months before an election was $600,000.