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York U. Political Scientist Reveals Secret to Conservatives' Electoral Success

TORONTO, September 5, 2000 -- As Premier Mike Harris and his caucus gather in Haliburton for their annual retreat this week, political analysts note that the Tories' "American-style" revolutionary fervour remains strong, with the government's latest advertising campaign promoting its education and environmental policies expected to top $3-million.

York University political scientist Robert MacDermid says the Tories are operating on a permanent campaign footing, helped by changes to the Elections Act and the Election Finances Act last year that have given them an electoral edge unseen in the history of Ontario politics. In his recently released paper, Changing Electoral Politics in Ontario: The 1999 Provincial Election, MacDermid reveals how these election law changes gave the Tories an unfair advantage in the 1999 provincial election campaign. And he argues that the Harris government's extensive use of government advertising and Conservative Party pre-campaign advertising has rendered controls on campaign spending meaningless.

Among the new research findings:

  • MacDermid says the Tories have revolutionized the conduct of party politics in Ontario by raising and spending more money in 1999 than any party in any election year in the province's history. The incomplete records show the Conservatives raised $15.3 million and the final figure will probably top $17 million. They spent even more -- at least $23.5 million -- mostly on re-election activities.

  • Party contribution data demonstrate that the government's near doubling of the legal limit on contributions to political parties in an election year (from $14,000 to $25,000) was prompted by the Tories' dependency on contributions from wealthy individuals and large corporations who give the maximum donation possible. The higher limits on contributions brought the Tories an additional $2.2 million, while the Liberals took in $277,000 and the NDP $103,000 as a direct result of the changes (see table 3).

  • To almost all Ontarians, the higher contribution limits are irrelevant because they cannot afford to donate such large sums, and even the old limit of $14,000 is ridiculously large for the average citizen on an average salary. Examining the donor practices of highly partisan, above-average income earners such as Conservative MPP's, with a base salary of $78,000, MacDermid shows that they came no where close to the contribution limit under the old rules, with 88 per cent of members' annual contribution totals below $1,000 and often below $500 each year. MacDermid concludes that both previous and existing contribution caps are not a restraint on, but rather a licence for, the very wealthy and corporate interests to try to influence government (see table 4: Contributions by Conservative MPPs 1995-99).

  • The increase in campaign spending limits legislated by the Tories was not justified by the past spending records of central party and individual candidate campaigns. Nonetheless, the government increases in the limits and the reclassification of campaign expenses such as travel, and research and polling, with no definition of research in the Election Finances Act, allowed for the declaration of any cost as a research cost and excluded the party leader's tour from any spending constraint. Taken together, these changes produced a 114% increase in the campaign spending limit.

  • The Tories took full advantage of the increased limits, making record expenditures on the Leader's tour, research and polling, and on advertising. In 1999, the Tories spent $405,386 on the Leader's tour, plus $266,311 on additional travel costs, and $1 million on polling and research. In 1995, the Tories spent exactly half that amount on travel and the leader's tour and $46,423 on polling and research, while the Liberals spent $249,952 on polling and research and the NDP spent $178,624. In 1999, the Liberals spent $392,000 on travel and the leader's tour and the NDP spent $65,000.

  • More than two-thirds of the money the Conservative central campaign raised came from corporations. MacDermid calculates that 16 per cent of all the money raised came from just 19 corporate conglomerates. For example, TrizecHahn and its subsidiary Barrick Gold made 17 contributions worth a total of $121,000, and the Latner conglomerate, which includes companies such as Dynacare, Greenwin Properties and Shiplake Investments, gave over $100,000. Over all of the contribution periods in 1999, TrizecHahn and related companies gave to the Tories $255,000, the Cortellucci and Montemarano companies $254,000 and Latner companies $220,000 (see table 9).

  • When the government shortened the campaign period from about 40 days to 28, it benefitted fund-raising that depends on large donations from relatively few individuals and corporations. The Tories raised $4.9 million dollars without spending a penny on fund-raising, while it cost the NDP $206,000 to raise just over $400,000. The shorter campaign also brought the unregulated pre-campaign period closer to election day and allowed the Tory campaign to advertise in the pre-campaign period as much as in the campaign period without any concern for spending caps.

  • MacDermid's analysis of the television advertising campaign, based on 15 station logs from the campaign period and the log for three stations in the 12 months before the campaign, shows the Tories advertised in the months before the campaign at unprecedented levels, buying almost as many TV ad spots in the month before the campaign as they bought during the campaign and spending as much money on advertising before the campaign as they spent during it.

  • The Tories used government advertising as part of their overall re-election campaign and the key ministries of Health and Education spent $20 million dollars on advertising in the run-up to the campaign. Government advertising ran at unprecedented levels during the campaign, bathing voters in feel-good spots and positive imagery (see table 10).

  • Advocacy group activity in 1999 also reached record levels. At least 29 groups took part in the campaign and together spent well over $6 million, more than both the Liberals and NDP. The TV advertising of the main advocacy groups was as heavy or heavier than what the NDP managed to buy on a sample of 15 TV stations (see tables 11 and 12).

  • The government's 21 per cent reduction in the number of MPPs, from 130 to 103, has resulted in few cost savings to the taxpayer because of increased members' spending and a projected salary increase. MacDermid argues that this measure has in fact cost Ontario citizens, reducing their chances of receiving timely services and assistance from their elected representative.


    For further information, or a copy of the report, please contact:

    Prof. Bob MacDermid
    Department of Political Science, York University
    (416) 736-2100, ext. 77298
    (705) 357-2459 (home)

    Susan Bigelow
    Media Relations
    York University
    (416) 736-2100, ext. 22091


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