Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget is about to cancel the quarterly allowances for political parties. While critics accuse the Conservatives of wanting to bankrupt their opponents, the real-world effects are more subtle and long-term.
The Conservatives' platform commitment is to end the allowances gradually over a three-year period. That probably means paying 75 per cent of the present amount the first year, 50 per cent the second year, 25 per cent the third year, and nothing thereafter. Thus, between passage of the budget and the next election, currently expected for October, 2015, each party will receive 150 per cent of its current annual subsidy, as compared to 400 per cent if the fiscal regime were not changed.
That sounds like a big cut, and it is. But it is also true that parties' financial requirements will be smaller because there will not be another election for four years, whereas in the recent years of minority government, parties were paying for an election campaign every two years. Given this reduced spending requirement, the reduction in federal subsidies will not drive anyone into bankruptcy before the next election.
The Liberals will have by far the toughest challenge - to start spending like a minor party. That won't be easy, after having been a contender for government since Confederation. Yet many other parties, including the New Democrats, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives after 1993, have run balanced budgets in straitened circumstances.
If the Liberals are wise, they will radically downsize their expenditures to match their own fundraising, and use the approximately $8.5-million they will get from Elections Canada as subsidies are phased out to pay off the debt they undoubtedly incurred to run their recent election campaign. If they are lucky, they may have something left over to get ready for the 2015 campaign. The Conservatives and NDP, with their much larger phase-out allowances, will easily pay off any 2011 debts and still be in good shape for 2015.
The 2015 election will be decisive for the future of the centre-left in Canada. After that vote, as they try to pay back campaign debts without corporate and union donations, or subsidies from the federal treasury, the Liberals, NDP and Greens will confront an unpleasant reality - that there simply is not room for three centre-left parties in Canada.
The 2011 election showed there is not enough political space, as the NDP surge brought about a majority Conservative government by defeating Liberals in Ontario. The 2015 election will show that there is not enough financial room, either.
After 2015, these parties will have to become more realistic about the Conservative nightmare they face - a well-funded, cohesive party of the centre-right, commanding about 40 per cent of the popular vote. In our first-past-the-post electoral system, such a party wins every time against three underfunded, bickering opponents running against each other to determine who will become the Official Opposition. There will have to be a merger, an electoral coalition or the elimination of one or more of these parties if the centre-left ever hopes to win again.
Mr. Harper is doing the Liberals, NDP, and Greens a favour by cutting off their lolly. If he were as Machiavellian as his critics allege, he would keep the allowances in place, thus encouraging the centre-left parties to remain separate. Ending the allowances is in the long-term self-interest of these parties (or at least of their supporters), because it will drive them to co-operate in order to compete with the Conservative juggernaut.
The Conservatives should erect a monument to Jean Chrétien for his 2003 party-funding reforms, which took away the Liberals' long-standing advantage in corporate fundraising. Some day, the three parties of the centre-left will want to erect a monument to Mr. Harper for pushing them to harmonize their efforts.
Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.