Riding associations are the building blocks of political parties. In recent months I have done a great deal of advocating on their importance. While they remain important the moral purity of riding associations can be rightfully impugned. The Toronto Star has reported that millions of dollars are spent by these associations with little to no accountability.
The article is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it. However, one criticism I have is that the authors paint broadly and likely hits all riding associations with their brush. The journalists found that several riding associations have gigantic financial bases. Ridings of prominent MPs have hundreds of thousands in the bank and pull in substantial amounts annually. Unsurprisingly the wealthiest riding association in Canada is Stephen Harper’s riding of Calgary Southwest. Harper’s riding has a third of a million dollars in reserve. Other prominent parliamentarians had wealth riding associations.
The reason why is easy enough to understand. Whether or not it’s true, people believe donating money gives access to politicians. I admit that I have engaged in this line of thinking. By donating a little money, or giving at an important time, you feel like perhaps your name will go on a list and be remembered for a job or something. Or, perhaps by attending a fundraising event you’ll rub elbows and meet interesting people. After a year I realized a person of my means cannot play that game with any amount of success. Conservatives from across the country probably give to the Calgary Southwest Conservative Riding Association in hopes it will bring them closer to the leader of their party and the Prime Minister.
However the dozens of very wealthy riding associations are merely outliers. My experience in the Brampton West NDP has been as a pauper riding association. Riding associations outside of areas of strengths, or with a strong activist base are basically penniless. When I discussed this article with a fellow activist I mentioned it must be nice to be in a riding with that kind of money, and it would be nice to work in a riding with tens of thousands in the bank. She laughed and countered that it would be nice to work for a riding with tens in the bank.
The current system and the practices of the very wealthy EDAs leaves much to be desired and there is a high risk that laws are being bent, if not broken. In the official filings ridings are mislabelling and misreporting their spending with no consequence. The trouble is that if regulations are tightened on riding associations it will make engagement and participation more difficult.
If the accounting practices become stricter and penalties harsher for misreporting the chances have it that the wealthy ridings who can hire professionals will continue to do well while small ridings with amateur staff will fall victim of careless mistakes. We put a great deal of our democratic system in the hands of volunteers. The simplest approach, I assume, would be to hire regional directors from the central party to make sure riding associations uphold the laws and help them with a stricter code. Obviously better accounting and accountability is required, but the best mechanism to carry it out is unclear at this time.