The past year has shaken Newfoundland and Labrador’s political parties significantly. Former Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s resignation prompted the Progressive Conservative Party to begin searching for its new leader; the Liberal Party elected its new leader following a long and expensive campaign; and infighting forced the New Democratic Party to perform a leadership review, scheduled for this May.
Chaos at the top of Newfoundland and Labrador’s three major political parties happened to spark debate about provincial campaign financing rules. In the Liberal leadership race, candidates could accept donations of any amount from individuals, corporations, and unions, had no spending limits, and did not have to disclose the origin of donations made to them. Election rules are similarly scant. There are no donation limits, although there are spending limits: candidates can spend roughly $4.30 per elector in each district.
In a democracy, candidates must convince voters why they are suited to govern and campaigning allows the former to provide the latter with information necessary to make a decision at the ballot box. Winning requires candidates to compete with each other and persuade voters in their direction, whether by connecting with them through advertisements, lawn signs, websites, phone calls, or knocking on doors. Politicians need money to make these connections, though, which is why strong financial support is a primary determinant of candidate success.
Unlimited campaign contributions harm Newfoundland and Labrador’s democracy. They allow candidates to rely on a few large donors for support and, in some instances, permit those donors to fund their own campaigns. In many ways, small groups have more influence over policymakers than do individual voters. Reciprocity, however, is instinctual, and even if it was not, politicians must keep their donors happy if they depend on them for re-election. Moreover, unlimited campaign financing allows affluent candidates to use their personal wealth as an electoral advantage.
The lack of rules governing leadership races is of even bigger concern. In the most recent provincial by-election, candidates were permitted to spend $42,278. This is a large sum of money, but it is not insurmountable for candidates with some of their own money, a respectable donor base, and party support. But the “capital requirement” of a leadership bid is prohibitive for all but the wealthy. In the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador’s 2013 leadership race, for instance, two candidates spent over $400,000. Much of this came from their own pockets.
Only candidates willing to spend large sums of their own money, or those with donors willing to fund their campaigns, stand a chance to lead one of the province’s main parties, which gives wealthier individuals an advantage or holds leadership accountable to large donors. (Moreover, leadership candidates do not have to disclose their donor lists, exacerbating the situation.) Until the situation ceases, parties will not have an incentive to reduce their own spending or contribution limits to reasonable levels.
The problem is not, strictly speaking, that wealthy people have too much power in politics. Even if corporations, unions, and individuals represented the interests of those without their own wealth to spend on campaigns, their ability to almost singlehandedly fund campaigns makes politicians more accountable to a few voices than to many. Without contribution limits, groups representing people control elections rather than people themselves. This weakens the connections between voters and democracy’s outcomes.
The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador should, therefore, institute a campaign financing regime, similar that of the federal government. It should cap contribution limits, extend its financing laws to leadership elections, and ban corporate and union donations. Taking these steps would make democracy in the province less accountable to money and more accountable to voters.
Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute