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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at a campaign rally in St John's. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at a campaign rally in St John's. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Analysis: Fears about scrapping per-vote subsidies wildly off target Add to ...

A quick quiz on the economics of political donations: Does having $44 in your pocket make you rich?

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is once again proposing to scrap the per-vote subsidies that federal parties have gorged on since 2004, once again raising the predictable cries that such a move would hand control of politics to the wealthy.

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Without such subsidies, party financing will fall into the grasp of the rich, the only group able to afford the extravagance of donations. Or so the theory goes.

Those concerns are wildly off target. Data compiled by the website Punditsguide.ca show that funds raised by the parties largely come from small donors, in amounts that would make few Canadian households cringe.

Take the Conservative Party in 2009, which raised $17.7-million from 101,385 people, for an average donation of $174.60. That's hardly a sum to raise eyebrows, but of course the actual outlay is smaller; just $44 once the tax credits are taken into account. Most Canadians would be able, if not necessarily willing, to pay that amount.

The story is pretty much the same with the other parties: the NDP, with an average donation of $169.11; the Bloc Quebecois, average $102.63; Green Party, $123.21; and the Liberals, with an average of $239.23, the highest of the major federal parties. But even that relatively hefty donation would only set a citizen back $59, after the tax refund.

One other thing about those average donation figures - none are anywhere near the $1,100 ceiling placed on federal donations, meaning small donors dominate.

The same picture emerges when looking at the distribution of donations by size. For the Conservatives, about 10 per cent of the funds raised came from those giving between $1,000 and the maximum of $1,100; conversely, two-thirds came from those giving $400 or less. The NDP were similar, with 7 per cent coming from the highest donated amount, and 70 per cent coming from donations $400 and under. The Liberals - who have fulminated against the perils of the rich controlling the political process - were actually the party most dependent on big donations, with 35 per cent of their cash coming from donors giving between $1,000 and $1,100, while sub-$400 donors accounted for just 38 per cent of the funds the party raised.

In fact, the Liberals outperformed among big donors, raising $3.2-million to the Conservatives' $1.7-million. The Tories made up that ground, and more, with small donors.

Assuming that Mr. Harper isn't in the mood to give the Liberals undue electoral advantage, that last statistic should give great reassurance to those worried that the end of per-voter subsidies will open the door to major increases in individual contributions, or even the elimination of caps altogether.

Given current donation patterns, the higher the limit is, the better the Liberal Party will fare. The clear Conservative edge in raising funds from small donors would shrink accordingly. So, Mr. Harper can be counted on to avoid introducing big money into Canadian politics - if only because it preserves the big fundraising advantage of the Conservative Party.

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