Questions about teacher unions financing elections

By MPP Toby Barrett

Last week, the Wynne government had a chance to answer questions and demonstrate accountability in regards to millions of dollars of secret pay backs to teacher unions. Since 2008, the government has paid $3.7 million to teacher unions. Previously, these same unions have spent millions of dollars in election campaigns to the benefit of the Ontario Liberal Party.

Over this fall, questions have been raised in the Legislature about whether the $3.7 million was payback for election advertising targeting the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. The Globe and Mail has reported that over the past three provincial election campaigns, teachers’ unions have spent more than $6.5 million to run negative ad campaigns and have donated nearly $800,000 directly to the provincial Liberals over the past decade. According to a Toronto Star editorial, this pattern of government payouts and election spending by unions gives rise to the perception that taxpayer money may have been spent in an effort to tilt the outcome of provincial elections.

Opposition Leader and Education Critic Patrick Brown presented a motion on Nov. 25 calling on the Ontario Liberal Party to “immediately pay the Ministry of Education $3.7 million to reimburse Ontario’s students and teachers for these funds that were taken out of the classroom.”

Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada that regulates third parties but doesn’t restrain their spending on political ads during elections. According to Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer, Greg Essensa, the practice is so out of control that third-party groups are outspending political parties. Essensa warned in March of this year that the lack of limits on third-party advertising is creating an “uneven playing field that can potentially influence electoral outcomes”. Yet, the Ontario government has taken no action.

The Opposition motion charged payments to the unions violate the spirit of Section 70 of the Ontario Labour Relations Act, which prohibits an employer or employer organization from providing financial support to a union. If passed, the motion would have strengthened Section 70 to prohibit any future payments to public sector unions to allegedly compensate for collective bargaining costs.

It also called for a cap on third-party election advertising, which was a recommendation of Ontario’s Auditor General.

The Opposition Day motion was an opportunity for the Liberal government to own up to its mistakes. It was an opportunity to restore faith in politicians and fairness to our election system. Assurance needs to be offered to the people of Ontario that this perceived election funding and kickback process will be stopped. At minimum, this money needs to be put back in the classroom.

The motion was defeated by the Liberal majority in the Legislature. And we are still left with that bad feeling that taxpayer money has flowed through teacher union paybacks to say thanks for helping to win elections, and that this kind of alliance will continue in future elections.

The real losers in the defeat of this motion are the people of Ontario, and in particular, their schools, their teachers and their students who saw money that should have been spent in the classroom and not used for political purposes.

The big question remains, apart from the multi-million-dollar to-and-fro between the elections and negotiations, how much in total will it now cost taxpayers for the latest contracts.