The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective

Saskatchewan: the “Wild West” of Party and Election Finance

By Dr. ROYCE KOOP (PhD), Associate Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba
@roycekoop | 

Party and election finance laws are designed to (a) add transparency to how parties raise and spend money both before and during election campaigns and (b) impose limits on fundraising and party spending in order to reduce the political influence of those with deep pockets. Saskatchewan’s party and election finance laws are comparably lax within Canada, as they do not impose limits on monetary contributions, allow for both corporate and union contributions, and allow out-of-province contributions. A lack of contribution limits has led to accusations that Saskatchewan is the “Wild West” when it comes to party and election finance laws. [1]

In the 2020 provincial election campaign, Saskatchewan’s election and party finance laws governed how the parties conducted themselves during the campaign. But these rules were themselves contested by the parties, with the incumbent Saskatchewan Party defending them and the opposition NDP promising to introduce tougher restrictions in order to level the playing field.

Saskatchewan’s Election Act, 1996 requires that election expenses—including both money spent and in-kind donations accepted—must be both tracked and declared. The Act also imposes election expense limits on both parties and candidates. These limits are adjusted each year; in the 2020 election, parties could spend to a maximum of $1,070,281.[2] The Act also allows for reimbursement of election expenses for both parties and candidates. Parties that receive at least 15 per cent of the vote are eligible to have up to half their eligible expenses reimbursed. Individual candidates must also receive 15 per cent of the local vote to be eligible for reimbursement of up to 60 per cent of their expenses.

The Political Contributions Tax Credit Act, 2000 provides for tax credits in return for monetary contributions to parties or candidates. The credit amounts are 75 per cent for the first $400 contributed, 50 per cent for the next $350, and 33.3 per cent for the next $525. The maximum eligible tax credit is $650.[3]

Saskatchewan’s party and election finance laws are notable for their lack of limits on contributions. There are no limits on contributions, including on corporate and union contributions. While finance laws can be used to level the playing field by limiting the influence of both corporations and unions, Saskatchewan’s laws do not do so. Furthermore, Saskatchewan is notable for allowing contributions—including from both corporations and unions—from outside the province.

This lack of limits has led to attention paid to the influence of corporations and outside interests on the Saskatchewan Party in particular. In 2020, Press Progress analyzed contribution records and concluded that, since 2006, almost half (46 per cent) of all contributions to the Saskatchewan Party have been from corporate donors. In 2019, roughly one-fifth of corporate contributions to the Saskatchewan Party were from out-of-province corporations, particularly from Alberta.[4]

While the NDP benefits from a lack of limits on union contributions, this does not effectively balance the playing field between the parties. In 2019, for example, the Saskatchewan Party raised $1.2M in corporate contributions while the NDP received just $202,397 from trade unions. However, the Saskatchewan Party also led the NDP in both the number of contributions received (15,300 to 9,421) and the amount raised from individual contributions.[5]

Differences in fundraising capacity between the two parties, which resulted in part from the Saskatchewan Party’s access to corporate contributions, helped to set the stage for the 2020 election campaign. Journalist Arthur White-Crummey notes that the Saskatchewan Party’s deep pockets allowed it to stage an expansive pre-election advertising campaign. In 2018, for example, the Saskatchewan Party spent $223,358 on broadcast advertising compared to the meagre $3,341 spent by the NDP. The Saskatchewan Party’s pre-campaign spending included advertisements attacking NDP leader Ryan Meili by portraying him as “out of touch with Saskatchewan.” The Saskatchewan Party was also able to transfer a comparably large sum to its local constituency associations in the lead up to the 2020 campaign.[6]

This uneven playing field has long been a bone of contention for the NDP, with the party caucus supporting abolition of both corporate and union contributions as well as the banning of out-of-province contributions. The party regularly raised the issue in Question Period and had previously introduced a private member’s bill in the legislature that would have banned all contributions besides those from individuals, but the bill did not pass. While trade unions opposed the abolition of union contributions, arguing that these are not equivalent to corporate donations, this view did not prevail in the NDP.[7]

Leader Ryan Meili, therefore, entered the 2020 election with abolition of corporate, union, and out-of-province contributions as a central plank in his campaign platform. Meili came out swinging, arguing that corporate donations constituted a “corrupting influence” on Saskatchewan politics. “We still have the worst election finance laws in the entire country,” Meili claimed. “We need to level the playing field and make sure it’s the people of this province that are making decisions, not companies from out of province.”

But Saskatchewan Party leader Scott Moe defended corporate contributions, arguing that “people who are involved in employing people across this province should have a say in some of the policies that we have that impact their industry, given that they employ a number of people in communities right across Saskatchewan.” Moe rejected the view that the Saskatchewan Party was beholden to its corporate donors, arguing that the same argument could be made with respect to the NDP and its union contributors.

Moe’s convincing victory in the 2020 election campaign all but ensured that any potential reforms to Saskatchewan’s controversial party and election financing regime will be shelved.

Saskatchewan will continue, for the time being, to be Canada’s “Wild West” when it comes to the funding of political parties.





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