Where were we? Ah yes. The immediate cause of last fall’s Hysteria on the Hill, if memory serves (how long ago it seems now), before everyone had been coached to say it was about the economy, was the Conservatives’ attempt to remove or at least reduce public funding for political parties.
This was, depending on your point of view, either an existential threat to the opposition parties that left them no option but to overthrow the government, or the pretext for a long-planned scheme to do the same. But all agreed that it was a massive blunder on the Tories’ part: a distraction in a time of economic crisis, a destabilizing influence in an already turbulent minority Parliament, even an assault on democracy itself.
With the passage of time and the cooling of heads, it may be possible to assess this issue more rationally. Whatever the Tories’ partisan motivations for introducing the measure, there was never anything wrong in principle with the idea that political parties should depend a little less on the taxpayer, and a little more on their own supporters—especially at a time of economic crisis, when others are having to make do with less, or indeed with nothing at all. The notion that the parties could continue to feed contentedly off the public treasury, while about them companies are failing and people are being thrown out of work, is one that could be sustained only inside the Ottawa bubble.
If anything, the Conservatives did not go far enough. While it is a fair criticism that they should have given the opposition parties more notice, to allow them time to adjust, it is also true that the $1.95 per vote subsidy they proposed to remove is only one of at least three means by which the political parties avail themselves of public funds. There is also the tax credit for political contributions, as high as 75 per cent—charities should dream of such treatment—as well as the reimbursement for election expenses: 50 per cent for parties, 60 per cent for candidates.
All told, in a typical election year the public will be hit up for roughly $80 million. If the principle is that people should contribute to political parties on their own dime, and that parties should have to appeal to willing donors rather than conscript the taxpayer, it would be more consistent to scrap the lot, rather than cherry-pick the per-vote subsidy.
But never mind—it’s a start. And, as the Prime Minister makes clear in this week’s Maclean’s interview (p. 20), the issue is not going to go away. The Tories will fight the next campaign on it, and they will be right to do so. Though it tends to be mentioned only in passing, it is not a trivial point that the Tories are the largest beneficiary of the subsidy they propose to dismantle. While it is true that the other parties are proportionately more dependent on the subsidy than the Conservatives are, that is a comment not on how much subsidy they receive but on how little private money they raise.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that situation, one thing should by now be clear: eliminating the subsidy, far from destabilizing Canadian politics, would do much to restore it to something resembling working order. There are two great sources of instability in the present Parliament: the weakness of the Liberal party, and the strength of the Bloc. The first tempts other parties into adventurism, as we saw in the fall, each calculating that the Liberals could be made to swallow anything rather than face an election. The second makes majority governments all but impossible—and also coalition governments, since none can be formed without the Bloc and, given the public’s hostility to the idea, none will be formed with it. Both, Liberal weakness and Bloc strength, are intimately connected with public subsidy.
The Liberals have never, in the more than five years since the Chrétien reforms ushered in the modern era of campaign finance, made any attempt to cultivate a mass constituency of small donors, such as the Tories and (to a lesser extent) the NDP have done. Prior to the reforms they had depended on corporate Canada; since then they have depended on the state. But until they establish a donor base—until they are able to generate enough enthusiasm to persuade large numbers of people to part with small sums of money—they will have little prospect of developing a wider following among the public. And so long as they can count on the subsidy, they will have little incentive to do so.
But if subsidization has kept the Liberals weak, it has strengthened the Bloc. For whereas the Grits must finance a national campaign on the dole, the Bloc can concentrate all of its resources on a single province. Indeed, it hardly bothers to raise funds on its own. In 2007, the party had fewer than 4,500 individual donors—compared to the roughly 107,000 people who contributed to the federal Conservatives. From 2000 to 2008, it averaged nearly $6 in direct public funding (not counting tax credits) for every dollar in individual donations. (I am indebted to Mark Milke at the Frontier Institute for these figures.)
Strange but true: no party is more dependent on the generosity of the Canadian taxpayer than the party dedicated to the country’s destruction. No party benefits more from this assistance, to such destabilizing effect. It is desirable generally to wean the parties off of public funds, but in the case of the Bloc it is truly essential.
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