Party financing: Yes, end the public subsidy, but raise the individual limit

Canadians’ tax dollars are being used legally but quite flagrantly to finance a party that wants to break up the country

Jeffrey Simpson

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010 5:00AM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010 1:46PM EDT

The law of unintended consequences can be seen by a quick reference to Elections Canada’s website.

There, details of party financing are revealed. The story of those details shows how the Liberals have been hurt by their own legislation, and how the Bloc Québécois has walked away the big winner from public financing of parties.

Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, in trying to “clean up” party financing, outlawed corporate and union contributions, set a limit of $5,000 for individual contributions and offered public help to each party. The Harper Conservatives, as part of their overwrought so-called Accountability Act, reduced individual contributions from $5,000 to $1,100.

Quietly, the big winner from this system has been the Bloc.

The Liberals had always done well in corporate Canada, so the elimination of corporate donations hurt them badly. They also had donors lining up to give $5,000, so the elimination of that provision also hurt them. The Conservatives, like the Reformers, had a small army of modest contributors that they cultivated, and still do. The party raises a lot of money this way – much more than the Liberals – but spends a lot cultivating its base.

Quietly, the big winner from this system has been the Bloc. It doesn’t try very hard to raise money, because federal largesse to parties means the Bloc can tell its core secessionist supporters to donate instead to the Parti Québécois.

The numbers tell the story. The Bloc raised only $850,000 last year but took in $2.7-million in public money, for a ratio of one private dollar to 3.5 public dollars. The Conservatives’ ratio is 1.7 to 1, the Liberals about 1 to 1 and the NDP about 1 to 1. The national parties, therefore, are working as best as they can at fundraising, earning at least as much, if not more, from their own efforts than from public funds.

The Bloc, as you can see from the numbers, is mostly riding on taxpayers’ dollars – most of them from outside Quebec – to promote itself and, by extension, the breakup of Canada.

Here, then, is the greatest effect of the law of unintended consequences: Canadians’ tax dollars are being used legally but quite flagrantly to finance a party that wants to end the country as we have known it for 143 years. Understanding this, no one should ever question the generosity of Canadians, although that generosity can certainly be described as nuts.

The Conservatives have included in successive campaign platforms a promise to end public subsidies. It was the attempt to implement this policy that contributed to the parliamentary crisis whereby the three opposition parties got together and proposed to take over power, an attempt that fizzled.

The Conservatives have said – and there’s no reason to doubt their resolve – that they will try again if re-elected. If they really wanted to put the cat among the pigeons, and were seeking an election, they could stick the measure in the next budget, daring the opposition parties to vote against the budget.

We can be certain that, by whatever means, the Conservatives will try for this change because, at the moment, it obviously benefits them. It would hurt the Liberals somewhat but damage the Bloc even more, given that party’s dependence on the federal subsidy mostly provided by Canadians outside Quebec.

The conceptual trouble with the Conservatives’ intention is not the theory but the execution. Anyone who thinks that a contribution of $1,000 to $5,000 will turn policy toward the giver isn’t living in the real world of government, in which national parties raise millions of dollars even with the $1,000 limit. Despite all the hyperventilation in the media about money buying influence, a few thousand dollars to a party buys the giver nada.

If we want parties to be healthy, they need money to do their work. And if we don’t want public dollars to help them, then individuals should be encouraged to give what they can to fill in the public subsidy – which will mean raising the individual limit above $1,000.

That’s the fair tradeoff: End the public subsidy, all right, but raise the individual contribution limit.