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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper steps off the campaign bus in Toronto, Saturday April 23, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/ The Globe and Mail/Adrian Wyld/ The Globe and Mail)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper steps off the campaign bus in Toronto, Saturday April 23, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/ The Globe and Mail/Adrian Wyld/ The Globe and Mail)

Adam Radwanski

How Tory rush to kill per-vote subsidy could backfire Add to ...

For Canada's opposition parties, the day of reckoning looms.

If Stephen Harper wins a majority government next Monday, the Conservative Leader will move swiftly to phase out the per-vote subsidies on which federal parties have relied since the end of the Jean Chrétien era. The Conservatives, who have built a tremendously successful fundraising machine, will be just fine; the other parties will be in deep trouble.

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But desperation can make political parties do interesting things. And so, for the Conservatives, it bears asking: Could establishing such a big advantage for themselves in the short term have consequences down the road?

Since 1993, the secret to success for federal parties has been vote-splitting among their opponents. With both the Liberals and the NDP currently polling above 20 per cent, and the Greens pulling away a few votes here and there, that vote-splitting may finally give Mr. Harper the majority he's long been seeking. And the longer that dynamic remains, the better the Conservatives' chances of keeping power.

There are few signs that parties on the centre-left are eager to permanently join forces any time soon, as the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives did last decade. But force their hand enough, and they may eventually have little choice. And if Mr. Harper soon has his way, he'll force their hands very much indeed.

Political parties need money to compete - not just during election campaigns, but between them. And if they were just relying on the money they raise from individuals, without the $2 they get per vote, the opposition parties wouldn't be competing at all. In the final quarter of 2010, the Conservatives raised $5.23-million from individual donors - well more than the Liberals ($2.19-million), New Democrats ($1.66-million) and Bloc Québécois ($348,000) combined.

It may be that, if and when they have to do without the subsidies, the opposition parties will step up their fundraising games. The Bloc, which hardly seems to do any fundraising at all right now, should really be able to come up with enough cash to maintain operations in a single province.

But the Liberals and NDP both have big challenges. Mr. Chrétien's ban on corporate and union donations, imposed at the same time the per-vote subsidy was introduced, hit them much harder than it hit the Conservatives. Both are a long way from figuring out how to tap individuals the way the Tories have.

If they can't achieve that, both parties will be at a permanent and insurmountable disadvantage. So at some point, the Liberals and NDP - along with the Greens, who currently receive much more money in subsidies than they do in donations and still can't win a seat - might have to consider whether there's really enough money in the system to support all of their existences.

The dynamics between the opposition parties, of course, will depend a great deal on the results next Monday. For all we know, the NDP could be on its way to supplanting the Liberals as second national party, in which case all bets are off.

Whatever the party standings, a combination of egos, eternal optimism and genuine philosophical differences will always complicate any efforts at co-operation. And money alone won't compel them; it would have to be one of several factors.

But Mr. Harper, more than almost anyone, should know what can happen when opposition parties fear complete annihilation.

It was only as far back as 2003 that it appeared Paul Martin's ascent to the Liberals' helm would decimate the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. Although that assessment looks a little silly in retrospect, it helped provide the impetus to unite the right - with Mr. Harper at the helm of what would soon become the country's governing party.

It's probably too late for him to backtrack on ending per-vote subsidies, if he wins his majority. And there's certainly an argument that getting rid of them is the right thing to do. But it might not cement the Conservatives' advantage quite as much as the common wisdom suggests.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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