It’s a fact: chasing money is part of a politician’s survival, but figuring out where their donations are coming from isn’t as transparent. That’s why National Post reporter and Michelle Lang Fellow Zane Schwartz came up with Follow the Money, a data journalism project that tracks contributions given to federal and provincial candidates and parties in Canada in a searchable database. The database was conceived as a tool for engaged citizens and media outlets to hold politicians accountable and use the information to demand transparency.
“I was frustrated by the way donations to politicians are recorded,” said Schwartz. “In Canada, all donations made to politicians are legally required to be made public, but they’re usually stored in such a way that it’s impossible to glean any information.”
To remedy the issue, Schwartz and other journalists with parent company, Postmedia, and developers at Qlik created an accessible search tool for contributions. It is compiled from more than 6 million records and covers about a decade of political fundraising.
Before Schwartz’s research, donations made on a national scale weren’t being tracked and financing rules or penalties weren’t being enforced. According to Schwartz, some records are handwritten, and most are stored as PDFs, subdivided by political party or election campaign. This means citizens have to pour through ambiguous PDFs to find specific political figure’s donations.
“I wanted to create a centralized searchable database that could easily show people who was giving their elected representatives the most money and who the biggest donors in all of Canada,” said Schwartz.
Inconsistencies with campaign financing rules in Canada and what was actually happening popped up during the research phase, such as businesses donating to politicians, gifts exceeding the donation cap, foreign donations (there were 5,000 donations associated with out-of country addresses), and union funding (before Ontario’s recent ban on union funding the top three donors were unions).
Schwartz said journalists in Ontario are using the data to grill candidates in the upcoming election on their biggest donors. “A few of those journalists have found potentially illegal donations.”
The Follow the Money team plans on updating the database once a year for the foreseeable future, with some updates. Schwartz also talked about including lobbyist registries and major government contract registries in the future.
“It would be great to expand the database to include donations made to municipal politicians, where there are often few rules and wealthy interests like real estate developers giving huge sums,” he said. “Combine that with a dwindling number of reporters covering city hall and there’s potentially all kinds of corruption a donation database could shine a light on.”