Canada has a problem when it comes to foreign interests influencing our elections. A recent report filed with Elections Canada alleges that foreign money influenced the results of the 2015 election by funding Canadian political advocacy groups.
This allegation shouldn't be surprising. The flimsy laws on political advocacy groups are begging for abuse and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in 2015. Though restricted to $205,800 during elections, political advocacy groups can spend as much as they want outside of the writ. Even more concerning are the allowable sources of those funds. Political advocacy groups can run campaigns during elections with corporate or union dollars - something that is illegal for political parties to do. They can also take more than $1,550 from a single donor where political parties cannot. They can even take foreign donations up to 6 months before the election and then run advertisements using their “own funds”. When doing this they don't even have to declare where these funds came from. All of this is entirely legal, and that should scare the hell out of us.
The implications of lax political advocacy group financing laws are particularly concerning when considering data collection activities. Modern election campaigns require good data to be effective. Political parties spend a great deal of time and money between elections identifying supporters, donors, and volunteers in preparation for the next time voters go to the polls. This work is absolutely critical to run a good campaign. This data makes it possible to secure donations, ensure sufficient volunteer resources are available, and make sure your supporters get to the polls. Good data also makes it much easier to sway voters to your party by knowing specific issues particular voters care about.
Due to the restrictive financial rules on registered parties, political parties can only collect data using money donated by Canadian citizens or permanent residents. On the other hand, political advocacy group spending is entirely unregulated outside of elections. Advocacy groups can collect data using money from foreign sources, from corporations or from unions. Once an election is called they can use this data the same way that political parties do. With robust data, political advocacy groups can have an incredible amount of influence while staying under the spending cap during an election. This problem is amplified if like-minded political advocacy groups share data amongst themselves and even more so if they share it with like-minded political parties.
The first step to fixing this troublesome loophole is recognising that there is a problem. Solving the problem is a little more complicated. One thing is for certain, change is needed to restrict the sources of funding available to political advocacy groups. The taps need to be turned off when it comes to foreign money; there’s no reason why foreign donors should be influencing a Canadian election. Similarly, advocacy groups need to be stopped from courting the deep pockets of corporations and unions. These rules were not applied to political parties by accident, they represent our underlying democratic values. We've decided that giving foreigners, corporations and unions too much influence over our elections isn't in our best interest as a nation. Our democratic values don't stop where a political party ends and an advocacy group begins. These same principles need to apply to both political parties and advocacy groups to ensure the fairness of our democracy is upheld.