We should be honest enough to say that those Liberals are proposing a regime that best fits their relative advantages and disadvantages in the fundraising realm. And why not, when the Conservatives clearly intend to eliminate the subsidy as a way of enhancing their own, opposite advantages. Or when, supported by the NDP, the Conservatives moved to reduce the contribution caps to $1,000 from $5,000 several years ago.
But if we go too far down the road of allowing the victor to create the rules, that's the most anti-democratic outcome of all. Whatever one might believe about the merits of public funding of political parties, the fact remains that prime minister Jean Chrétien introduced it unilaterally, thus violating a longstanding convention that the parties in the House of Commons would collectively establish rules they could all agree on, a rule that was still in effect as late as the 2000 Elections Act amendments.
The second element I hope people will consider is the importance of establishing a principled basis for making those rules, rather than picking some solutions that appear to have a short-term benefit for their own party but might later be found to have altogether different consequences. No doubt Mr. Chrétien believed he was promoting greater democracy by "keeping big money out of politics", but he did not perhaps fully anticipate the impact it would have on his own party.
A number of Liberals who now argue (quite brazenly in some cases) that eliminating the subsidy would eliminate the smaller parties who are currently their most pesky competition, ought to take a second to examine more closely how, if at all, their own dependency on the subsidy differs from that of other parties. Eyeballing it as a proportion of revenues, it does not seem significantly different from the NDP's over the same period of time.
Moreover, revenue is not the only part of the equation. It might be worth asking whether the other political parties have the same cost structures as the Liberals, who operate separate national and provincial-territorial associations, or whether they in fact have lower overhead. Several have survived on shoestrings before, the New Democrats in particular surviving the loss of official party status for a four-year term. The NDP was able to survive and rebuild without the subsidy; the Liberals who advocate eliminating the subsidy now should ensure they would truly be able to do the same.
Meantime, others in the press who have recently argued that excising three-quarters of its revenue would remove the Bloc's incentive for "laziness", as was stated in a recent Sun Media editorial, cannot have closely studied its true financial situation.
The Bloc raises enough at the riding and candidate level each year alone to run fully funded campaigns after the candidate rebates, and yet it is able to win fully two-thirds of the province's seats spending on average less than two-thirds of the limit in each constituency. Combining the riding-level surplus with its central fundraising would still allow that party to adequately finance its central campaign, after the central rebate is taken into account. We also know it costs significantly less to run a campaign across a single province in a single language than it does to run a national and bilingual one.
So to summarize, whether you are a libertarian who does not believe in any public funding of the political process or limits on money in politics, a radical federalist who believes we should not be subsidizing institutional separatism, or a devotee of the internationally-renowned Canadian philosopher C.B. Macpherson who argued that a democratic polity is the best counterbalance to an undemocratic economy and requires party financing rules that ensure the widest possible participation in our democratic process, carry on the debate.
But, now you can do so with the benefit of a more complete dataset. And please try to take a longer and principled view.
Alice Funke is a database specialist and computer-assisted reporting consultant who runs PunditsGuide.ca