Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former mentor, University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, says political parties are now better off with the taxpayer-subsidized funding system of $1.95 a vote, although the Liberals have been hit by receiving fewer votes in the last election.
The Conservative bid to end the subsidies, just after the 2008 election, was considered a punitive measure and almost cost Mr. Harper his government to the opposition coalition. Although the Tories pulled back, they are vowing again to reform the taxpayer subsidy.
In a new paper (PDF), co-authored with PhD candidate David Coletto, Prof. Flanagan notes that between 2004 and 2007, the country's five main parties received more than $114-million in allowances, which marks a 54 per cent increase compared to what they would have raised from corporations and unions.
The Liberals stopped the practice of corporate and union donations in 2003, replacing it with the quarterly subsidies. At the time, the Liberals said this would be a revenue-neutral scheme. Prof. Flanagan points out that clearly is not the reality now.
The paper, which examines alternative funding models, says this stable and increased revenue is allowing political parties to make decisions about trying to force elections or not.
Prof. Flanagan asks: "Parties now know their minimum funding base - but has predictability made government parties more likely to call an election or opposition parties to bring down a minority government?"
Interestingly, the Liberals have not tried to force an election since Paul Martin's 2004 campaign. "In contrast, the parties that have benefited the most from the reforms (the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois) seem to have been the least afraid of an election … perhaps partly as a result of their gaining more secure financing."
As well, parties are shifting, say the authors, to a "permanent campaign" model, featuring pre-writ advertising and keeping planes, buses and war rooms at the ready.
"Would Canadians object if political parties were deprived of public-sector financial resources that allowed them to campaign virtually all the time?"
In their paper, the two authors discuss a taxpayer check-off system, similar to what is used in the United States, as a possible alternative.
But whatever is decided, they say, it should be done in a non-partisan way so that reforms are not looked upon as attacks on other parties.
(Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)