Money matters in politics, and experts who spoke to The Telegram said it probably matters even more in a party leadership race than it does in a general election.
In the Liberal leadership race, contenders have until Sept. 30 to sign up new party members and supporters who will vote to pick a new leader in November.
Harold Jansen, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, said because of the focus on signing people up and then getting supporters to vote, modern leadership races are becoming akin to regular election campaigns.
“It used to be that you’d focus at the constituency level, right? Those local delegate selection meetings,” he said.
And when money becomes a factor, the candidates with a big war chest have a big advantage.
“The reality is that communication is key for candidates,” Jansen said. “It doesn’t become a race about ideas. It becomes a race about who can most effectively leverage their finances and get their message out, so it can create a very unequal playing field.”
The current Liberal leadership race has no rules at all when it comes to donations or spending limits. Candidates are free to accept as much money as they can get without disclosing any information to the pubic, and spend as much money as they want.
Pat Hickey, vice-president of the Liberal party, said nobody is totally happy with that situation, but when they were drawing up the rules, they didn’t think it was feasible to impose financial restrictions, because there’s nothing in the Elections Act governing party leadership campaigns.
“Federally, it’s in the Elections Act. In many other provinces it’s in the Elections Act,” Hickey said. “Is it one of those things that we probably could have worked on? Yeah. Is it one of the things that probably needs to be worked on in the future? Yeah.”
David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, has also studied money in politics, and party leadership campaigns, and he said rules for fundraising are more important than spending limits.
“I’m not saying that a donation means that person is sort of bought-and-paid-for by the donor, but it’s good for voters and the public to know that,” he said. “Disclosure is usually the first step to making sure that you prevent anything bad from happening or sort of controlling people.”
Under the current set of rules, there is no limit for Liberal candidates on how much money they can accept from any individual donor, and they don’t have to disclose who they’re taking money from.
“I think the public does have a right to know,” Coletto said. “You know, you’re not being elected chair of a company or a board of directors. You’re becoming leader of the opposition and potentially premier.”
Jansen agreed that fundraising rules are important, but said in a lot of ways, it’s too late now.
“Everybody needs to know that going in,” he said.
Jansen said donating a lot of money doesn’t mean you can make a politician do whatever you want, but it makes it a lot easier to bend their ear.
“I find it hard to believe that somebody who donated $50,000 wouldn’t have an easier time calling up a party leader or a premier and getting through to them than somebody who donated $200,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily get the policy you want, but you have an easier time getting a hearing, and people will listen to what you say.”