Getting politics off the dole

We’ll see about the deficit later, but for now this is fantastic news:

The Conservatives are poised to eliminate the public subsidies that Canada’s five major political parties receive, a move that would save $30 million a year but could cripple the opposition.Sources told CBC News and other media outlets Wednesday that the subsidy cut is one of the key elements of the fiscal update that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will present Thursday in Ottawa.

Parties currently receive $1.95 for every vote they receive in a federal election, provided they win at least two per cent of the nationwide popular vote. The annual subsidy is used to pay for staff and expenses.

On the surface, it would appear Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have the most to lose if subsidies were cut because they garnered the most votes in the October election. The Conservatives earned $10 million in subsidies, compared to $7.7 million for the Liberals, $4.9 million for the NDP, $2.6 million for the Bloc Québécois and $1.8 million for the Greens.

But because the Conservatives have such a strong fundraising base, their subsidy represents only 37 per cent of the party’s total revenues.

By comparison, the subsidy amounts to 63 per cent of the Liberals’ funding, 86 per cent of the Bloc’s, 57 per cent of the NDP’s and 65 per cent of the Greens’.

I don’t care what their motivations are: it’s the right thing to do. The public subsidy came in with the Chretien campaign finance reforms in 2003. But it was entirely contrary in spirit. The point of the restrictions on corporate and union donations was that elections should be a matter between the candidates and the voters. Corporations and unions don’t get extra votes in the ballot box, and shouldn’t get extra voice in the fund-raising contest. Nor should corporate and union leaders be able to donate other people’s money on their behalf. Whether to contribute to a political party, and how much, and to whom, should be a private, personal matter — voluntary, individual decisions.

The $1.95 “allowance” violated every one of those principles. By abolishing it, the Tories are finishing the job Chretien started, of creating a truly citizen-based campaign finance system. Or not quite: even without this particular subsidy, the parties would still benefit from the hefty tax credit on political donations (the formal beneficiary is the donor, but in practice the incidence is shared), while candidates would still have their expenses partially reimbursed. But it’s certainly a big step in the right direction.

Ignore the howls of the opposition. It is entirely within their power to do as the Tories have done, and develop a large base of individual contributors. Absolutely nothing is stopping them. Weren’t we all just worshipping at Obama’s shrine? Isn’t that what he did?

Ignore, too, the complaint that somehow this cripples the political process. Much of the subsidy we have been paying these people goes to the very things that are currently poisoning the political process: over-priced strategists and attack ads, push polls and focus groups. Who needs it?

Still not convinced? Two words: Bloc Québécois. Look at the numbers above. We, the taxpayers of Canada, are underwriting 86% of the expenses of a party whose sole raison d’etre is the destruction of the country. Let them work their treason on their own dime.

UPDATE: I am fascinated by the abusive tone of so many of the comments, many of them fuelled by the belief that I am consciously or unconsciously consigning Canadian elections to, in the words of one commenter, a “limited economic demographic.” Or as another put it, “the golden rule, of he who has the gold should make the rules. That’s what you advocate for, yes?”

Um, no, actually. I’ve been an advocate for contribution limits (though I favour global annual limits, all political contributions combined, rather than specifying limits on each contribution) for years, since the days when corporations were handing over $100,000 cheques to the Liberal party and getting hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies in return. That’s not the system we have now. Though there remain loopholes that should be closed, the basic rule is a $1000  (indexed to inflation) ceiling on all individual donations. I know some readers think the limit should be “tens” of dollars, but a thousand-dollar limit does not strike me as handing control to “a limited economic demographic.”

There may be relatively few people who can afford to give $1000, but that’s the point — they’re a few. In the days when there were no limits on contributions, a few people each giving $100,000 or more could add up to a whole pile of money, as a proportion of total party funds. But now a few only adds up to a little. 

More to the point, lots and lots of people giving much less than $1000 adds up to a great deal. The most famous current example: Barack Obama, whose campaign raised a record-shattering $640-million. Of that, according to (the website maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics), fully 91 per cent, or $579-million, came from individual donors. How many donors? Try 3.1 million of them. So the average donation was less than $200 (the Obama campaign maintains the average is $86, but I haven’t seen their math). Are Obama’s supporters a “limited economic demographic”? All 3.1 million of them?

NICE TRY: One commenter takes me to task for singling out the Bloc’s subsidy for scorn. “Aren’t you being a little dishonest here?” he/she asks. “Separatists are actually funded with… separatists’ money simply because anyone who vote is actually choosing the political party that will receive his $1.95 per vote.” 

Um, no. The money comes from general revenues. There isn’t some income tax check-off whereby the individual taxpayer gets to decide who gets his money (though that would be an improvement on the current setup). It all comes from the taxpaying public as a whole.

It’s true that the money is allocated by the decisions of Bloc voters, but that’s a different thing entirely. That the Bloc is helping itself to public funds via Bloc supporters does not alter the fact that a separatist party depends for almost the whole of its funding on the taxpayers of Canada.

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