York professor lobbies for ban on corporate municipal funding

Imagine a democratic system free of undue influence – a system in which citizens have more power than corporations. It’s an impossibility, many would argue, but York political science Professor Robert MacDermid is determined to change that kind of belief.

MacDermid’s research on municipal campaign funding and his efforts to lobby for reforms over the last several years have begun to pay off. In December, Toronto city councillors voted 29 to 12 to pass a bylaw that bans union and corporate donations in municipal elections. MacDermid says it was an historic win that he hopes will bring more transparency to the election process.

Left: Robert MacDermid

“Corporate donations don’t necessarily allow politicians to be bought, but they certainly give firms more influence than regular citizens,” he says. “This bylaw will hopefully level the playing field and put voting power back where it belongs – in the hands of citizens.”

His study “Funding City Politics” (2009) helped to play a critical role in raising awareness about the impact corporate donations can have on political outcomes and influencing city development. MacDermid examined the funding of candidates during the 2006 municipal elections in the cities of Toronto, Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, Pickering, Markham, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Brampton and Mississauga. His research revealed that candidate funding in these Greater Toronto Area municipalities comes, predominantly, from corporate donations and development industry financing.

Before the bylaw was passed, corporations and unions could contribute a maximum of $750 to councillor candidates and $2,500 to those running for mayor. Though $750 isn’t much with which to purchase influence, MacDermid says it’s certainly enough to ensure that development issues that concern donors are heard and represented by candidates.

“The bottom line?” MacDermid asks. “Elected councillors frequently vote on development proposals submitted by those who financed their campaigns. The development industry has every reason to try to control political decisions about planning and building. Campaign financing is one way to attempt to achieve that control.”

MacDermid believes that candidates should be financed and supported only by individuals who are qualified electors within their own municipality. He notes that elected officials should represent the interests of their constituents and not be subject to pressures from outside funders. But critics in the media and in politics wonder if the new bylaw will simply drive corporate donations underground.

“Sure, there is a risk that candidates may get financed under the table, but I think the benefits of banning corporate donations far outweigh any concerns that people may have,” says MacDermid. “The goal is to add more accountability and transparency to the system, not to force shady politicians into shadowy corners. I think there is the real potential to rebalance influence and representation and to encourage more active citizenship and participation in voting.”

Toronto’s new bylaw put pressure on the provincial government to ban the practice in municipalities across Ontario. In December, the government introduced Bill 212 – dubbed the Good Government Legislation – which MacDermid says is disappointing. “It certainly made clear that the provincial government is unlikely to follow Toronto’s lead,” he says. “While the reform attempts to tighten up the election process, it falls short of achieving any real change.”

But does MacDermid feel defeated? Hardly. “It’s a first step,” he says. He will keep doing his research and continue to lobby when he can. It’s a role he’s quite passionate about. “This is the exciting thing about academia; I get to do what I enjoy and be a part of dialoguing about important democratic issues,” MacDermid notes. “I think my research asks some tough questions about the representative political process and the kinds of systems we have in place.”

It is not surprising that academics and politicians in the United States are also struggling with how much power to allow corporations to have in the elections process. By the narrowest of majorities, the US Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 21 that Congress may not ban corporations and unions from paying to disseminate political messages at election time. The concern critics have about the court ruling are the same worries MacDermid has about Canada’s elections process – deep pockets give corporations undue influence and that influence can play a large role in determining political outcomes.

MacDermid, a professor in the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, teaches in the areas of Canadian government and politics, democratic administration and contemporary political analysis.

A video of MacDermid discussing his research is available online. For more information, e-mail MacDermid at rmacd@yorku.ca.

Submitted by Kristin Taylor, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies