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People leave a polling station in Point-du-Chene, New Brunswick as Canada goes to the polls for the federal election on Monday May 2, 2011.
People leave a polling station in Point-du-Chene, New Brunswick as Canada goes to the polls for the federal election on Monday May 2, 2011.

Jeffrey Simpson

No subsidies, no compromise Add to ...

Two principles clash in the debate over public subsidies for political parties. The Conservatives, with their majority in Parliament, will make one prevail over the other.

One principle, advanced by the Conservatives, is about freedom of choice. People should be free - indeed encouraged - to give to the party of their choice. They should not as taxpayers be forced through public subsidies for all parties to contribute to parties they do not support.

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A dollar given should go only to where the donor wishes. The business of a public subsidy, tied to how many votes a party got in the last election, (or some such formula), offends donor preference, or freedom of choice.

The other principle, advanced by the other parties, is about democracy as a whole. They argue that parties are essential to a well-functioning democracy. They are therefore worth general public support - in addition, of course, to what the parties can raise themselves.

The argument that public subsidies protect politics from private corruption has gotten pretty thin. Transparency of donor lists could put paid to that fear, as do rather small individual limits.

For NDP Leader Jack Layton to claim that the end of public subsidies will let big business unduly influence decision-making has no foundation in fact, as long as business cannot contribute directly and individual contributions remain rather low.

Both of these principles (or arguments) have considerable merit. Some countries such as Germany provide heavy public subsidies to parties; others provide none. But one principle will trump the other because the Conservatives have the votes to make it so.

They've been trying to eliminate public subsides for years, said they would do so if re-elected, and will set in motion their gradual elimination in the forthcoming budget, according to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Their decision certainly isn't about the $27-million cost of the subsidies, because that sum doesn't constitute even a rounding error in Ottawa's overall spending.

Principles are fine, but of course an important element of self-interest also drives the Conservatives. They are much better than the other parties at raising money, pure and simple. Although as the party with the most votes they get a larger public subsidy than the others, the share of public subsidy relative to the Conservatives' total fundraising is lower. Conservatives will lose money by the end of public subsidies, but by much less correspondingly than the other parties, especially the now-decimated Liberals.

Which is, of course, part of the reason why the Conservatives tried to press their advantage in the past, and why they will do so with a majority. Already able to raise more money than the Liberals (and the NDP), the Conservatives will now greatly stretch their advantage. Canadians saw with the attack advertising campaigns between elections what the Conservatives can do with their money advantage.

Squaring the two conflicting principles isn't easy, but it can be done. Assume that freedom of choice is important. Assume, too, that parties are important to the proper functioning of democracy, and that they need money to do their work.

The current limit of $1,100 is awfully small. It's especially low for parties that go through leadership races and find that people who contribute to such contests are then prohibited from making another contribution that year. This restriction has obviously hurt the Liberals, but it could hurt any party during a leadership contest.

There are ways, therefore, of encouraging people to give larger sums, without fearing that they will corrupt politics. The limit originally proposed by former prime minister Jean Chrétien was $5,000. Mr. Harper dropped it to the current level.

Squaring the circle of the conflicting principles would mean raising the individual limit. You have to be particularly conspiratorial and not know much about politics to believe that access or exercise undue influence can be bought for, say, $3,000 or $5,000, when the contribution will be on the public record.

Transparency, a higher individual limit and the end of public subsidies would be a reasonable compromise. But, of course, the Conservatives with their majority are not looking for compromise.

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