The predicament of Ken Dryden, the former hockey player and Liberal MP, shows that Elections Canada and a parliamentary committee should study the question of how to reform the leadership campaign “loans” regime, which is unsatisfactory and verging on unenforceable. The goals of such a reform should be balanced. On the one hand, it should be feasible for campaigns to get under way with a moderate amount of what might be called “seed money,” before the campaign itself begins to generate donations, from a broader base of support. On the other, it should be difficult for egocentric tycoons to skew the whole process by flooding a leadership race or a general election with vast amounts of cash.
Mr. Dryden is honourable and earnest; he is not a scofflaw. He ran for the federal Liberal leadership in 2006; he advanced about $300,000 to his campaign as a loan, hoping to raise more contributions later. At the end of 2011, he got the amount down to $225,000; since then, he has understandably not wanted to ask his former supporters to pay any more for a lost cause. No doubt, he would have preferred not to have spent so much of his own money.
There is no such thing as a loan to oneself. Mr. Dryden cannot repay himself. He cannot sue himself for non-payment of the debt. The Canada Elections Act should be amended so that it no longer tempts politicians to resort to the artifice of loans that are not loans, or which end up that way.
One of the problems with the current Elections Act is that the limit on individual donations is now too low. At the same time, there should indeed be limits. The precedents of Peter Pocklington, at the 1983 Progressive Conservative convention, Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. presidential election, and Frank Stronach in campaigns in both Canada and Austria are not models to be followed.
Stéphane Dion’s outstanding loan balance from the 2006 leadership campaign is much smaller, at $11,000. Probably it helped that he won, and remained the Liberal leader until the end of 2008. Canada needs competitive political contests, not ones in which the also-rans are left to flounder, tidying up the loose ends for years to come.