Kill the subsidy, but kill them all

Andrew Coyne on how political parties should be funded

Kill the subsidy, but kill them all

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

With the impending heat death of the Liberal party—er, rather, with the approaching end of the $2-per-vote party subsidy—the commentariat is consumed with what this will mean for the various political parties, and what Stephen Harper’s motives might be for introducing it.

Well, that last bit’s obvious, isn’t it? He wants to destroy the Liberal party. Everybody knows that. But wait: maybe by obliging the opposition parties to rely more heavily on their own supporters for funds, rather than the taxpayer, he will only create a more motivated cadre of foes, while his own troops grow fat and complacent in office. Or maybe by starving the opposition of funds, he will force them to realize there is only room for one left-wing party, hastening the very unite-the-left movement that could one day be his undoing. But how could such a master strategist not see that? Maybe he wants a united left, the better to…

People. Isn’t it possible, just possible, that he’s doing this because…it’s the right thing to do?

Nah. I was just messing with you. Still, even if it’s supremely self-interested—the Conservatives raise more each year than all the other parties combined—that doesn’t mean it isn’t sound in principle. The Tories’ success isn’t a matter of a few monocled millionaires passing the top hat: their average donor gives less than $200. A system based on thousands of small contributors, inspired by a belief in a party’s principles rather than the expectation of some reward: that’s supposed to be what we all want, isn’t it? So how does it become wrong, just because the Tories are good at it and the other parties aren’t?

Abolishing the subsidy isn’t, as critics on the left object, a betrayal of Jean Chrétien’s reforms to party funding, which effectively banned corporations and unions from contributing and capped individual donations at $5,000 (reduced to $1,000 under Harper, or $1,100 after inflation). Neither, as the right suggests, should the corollary of abolishing the subsidy be a loosening of the other constraints. Certainly that would give substance to the left’s fears, that without the subsidy there will be pressure for a return to “big money” politics. But there’s no logical necessity for the one to follow the other.

Both groups share the same basic assumption: that if the parties are denied one source of largesse, private or public, the other must be opened to them. The possibility that the parties could simply make do with less does not seem to occur to either. But there is no fixed amount of money the parties “need” to carry out their activities. Much of what the parties spend their money on today—push-polls, attack ads, meaningless leaders’ tours—we might all be better off without, especially in these days of email and social media, which cost nothing.

Logic would rather suggest the natural corollary to a ban on corporate and union donations is a ban on government donations. Indeed, if the Prime Minister were motivated by principle—remember, I said if—he’d not only close off the per-vote subsidy, but those other spigots through which public funds flow to private parties: the tax credits on private donations, as much as 75 per cent, and the partial reimbursement of campaign expenses.

The principle I refer to is that people who want to give to political parties should do so with their own money. Corporate CEOs should not be giving their shareholders’ money, union presidents should not be giving their members’ money, and individual party supporters should not be giving the taxpayers’ money, whether in the form of subsidies or tax credits.

If only individuals contribute, do we still need contribution limits? Yes: money may not buy elections, but it can certainly buy a party or two. If everyone had the same level of income, we wouldn’t worry about the rich having disproportionate influence over political decisions. The closest real-world approximation to that is to cap, not each contribution—for these can be multiplied and channelled through any number of like-minded recipients: parties, candidates, ostensibly non-partisan “advocacy” groups like the Liberal-friendly Working Families Coalition in Ontario—but rather the total amount an individual can contribute to political causes in a year: a global annual contribution limit of, say, $5,000.

The beauty of this scheme is that, within the cap, it’s self-limiting: the more you give to one party, candidate or cause of your choice, the less you have left to give to all the others. Having stipulated that parties (and advocacy groups, so far as they campaigned for or against a party or candidate) could spend only what they raised from individuals constrained in this way, moreover, there would be no reason to impose any further limits on spending. Indeed, spending caps discriminate against contributors to parties with larger numbers of supporters. Each, as an individual, is permitted less “voice” than the supporters of less popular parties.

The fairness that should concern us, that is, is not between parties, but individuals: parties are simply the lens through which individuals project their views onto the political arena, and not even necessarily the best one at that. By putting every individual donor under the same global ceiling, and letting each decide how to divide up his allotment in his own way, it puts not only donors on a (roughly) level footing, but also their potential recipients. In a system based on “one person, one vote,” that seems altogether fitting.

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