Talking with money

Kevin O’Leary looks to transform Canada into an oligarchy with Supreme Court challenge

Canada’s reality TV show investor Kevin O’Leary is making headlines again.

Mr. Wonderful, who ran a failed Conservative Party of Canada leadership campaign in 2017, still owes over $400,000 in campaign debt. The venture capitalist, who has a net worth of $400 million, is suing the commissioner of Canada elections and Elections Canada over rules standing in the way of him directly paying off his campaign debt.

Elections Canada rules state that any single candidate may only spend $25,000 on their own campaign, with other individual donations capped at $1,575 per year. O’Leary claims that these rules infringe upon his freedom of expression rights under section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The court ruling on this case wields the power to make or break Canada’s system of campaign finance, which has been incredibly effective in ensuring a democratic process.

It takes only a brief look at the pandemonium south of the border to understand just how successful Canada’s system has been and how erroneous O’Leary’s case is.

The United States is effectively no longer a democracy. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has steadily moved away from a democracy and toward an oligarchy. Campaign finance regulations can be tied directly to this shift.

Startlingly, it was one single devastating court ruling which truly set this dramatic change in motion.

The 1976 Supreme Court of the United States case Buckley v. Valeo was successful in making the case that money — in the case of a campaign, campaign contributions — is equivalent to speech, and should be protected in the same way under the First Amendment’s free speech clause. This is shockingly similar to the argument O’Leary puts forward.

The absurdity of this argument is comical to the core.

If money is speech, it must be safe then to assume that burning a dollar bill — which could land you in a U.S. prison for 10 years — is simply giving a fiery speech or that someone counterfeiting currency — punishable in the U.S. by up to 25 years in prison — is  printing a speech on green paper.

Still, if the highest court in the United States could make such a senseless ruling, it is certainly possible that a Canadian court could follow suit. Should this happen, Canada can kiss its democracy goodbye.

Since the 1976 ruling, politicians have represented their constituents less and less.

One way of measuring this decrease in representation is through productivity. Between 1950 and the mid-1970s, Americans’ productivity generally grew similarly to the growth of wages.

However, right around 1975, these two points no longer climb at the same rate. Between the mid-1970s and 2017, while worker productivity continued to rise at the same steady rate, hourly wages stagnated.

When the rich owners of companies are legally permitted to bribe politicians, those same politicians construct legislation which is overwhelmingly business-friendly.

And these bribes are incredibly effective during a campaign. In the 2012 campaign cycle, 94 per cent of the campaigns with the most money in the House of Representatives won, while 84 per cent won a Senate seat.

In the 2008 campaign cycle, the Barack Obama campaign spent more than double than competitor John McCain, which led Obama to a victory. Some of the top donors to the Obama campaign included Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and Citigroup Inc. It should not be surprising then that Citigroup shaped Obama’s cabinet in a list they drafted.

If elites like O’Leary would like to compare money to speech, they must do so accurately. O’Leary believes that low- and middle-class Canadians should be able to shout their opinion, while he drowns them all out with a megaphone.

O’Leary’s American Shark Tank buddies already have the loudest megaphone they could ever want, and he thirsts for the ability to buy Canadian MPs, senators and prime ministers in the exact same way.

The entitlement of O’Leary is just a reflection of the mind-boggling hubris of many millionaires and billionaires.

It simply is not enough to be incredibly wealthy: you must own the votes of those in power as well.

In 2014, Cambridge University published a study which focused on nearly 2,000 policies over 20 years and found the opinion of an average American now had little to no impact whatsoever on policy. However, the opinion of big businesses and elites had substantial influence.

Canada must not transform into the oligarchy America has become.

Just as Canada puts reasonable limitations on freedom of expression in cases of incitement of violence, it must uphold the reasonable limit on campaign contributions. Our democracy depends on it.

O’Leary is known for berating his guests on Shark Tank for making bad business decisions. Perhaps O’Leary should have simply practiced what he preaches: “Don’t spend more money than you bring in. Very simple concept.”