My reaction, when the issue first came up in late 2008, was that doing away with public subsidies for federal parties threatened to leave a big funding gap. After all, those payments were introduced to make up for the losses caused by new fundraising restrictions imposed by Jean Chrétien's government - restrictions that were tightened by Stephen Harper shortly after taking office.
Now that the issue has resurfaced, I was all set to make the same argument. To that end, I took a look at how much money the parties collected from donations 2002 (the last non-election year before the new rules were brought in) and how much they took in that way in 2009 (the last year for which full records are available). It seemed likely that the lack of corporate and union donations, and the cap of $1,000 on individual ones, would make for a smaller pot of money overall.
Alas, the numbers didn't show exactly what I expected. It turns out that Canadians are actually donating more money to federal parties than they were before the restrictions were imposed.
In 2002, the five major political parties - Liberal, Canadian Alliance, Progressive Conservative, New Democratic, and Bloc Québécois - took in a combined $24.83-million in donations. In 2009, the four major parties took in $31.39-million.
Evan after adjusting for inflation, donations were up 11.4% in 2009 from what they were seven years earlier. And '02 wasn't some kind of abberration; donations in '09 were up even more - 12.7% - from what they were at in 2001.
While the perpetual prospect of an election may have contributed to that, it bears noting that '09 was also a horrible economic year, when Canadians were presumably thinking twice about giving their money to anyone.
Part of this phenomenon, at least the lack of a major decline in donations, probably has to do with corporate donations going through employees - an end-around that was always predicted. But it's also obvious that some parties - okay, one party - adjusted so well to the new realities as to make up for any losses on the part of the others.
It's been widely reported that the Conservatives have led the way in modernizing their fundraising. But it's remarkable, looking at these numbers, just how big the gap is.
The $17.7-million taken in by Harper's party in 2009 was 49.7% higher than the combined (and inflation-adjusted) PC and Alliance total in 2002. The Liberals, meanwhile, went down by 6.6% - which may be slightly worse than it seems, because '02 was a pretty bad fundraising year for them. The Bloc Quebecois, whose fundraising was marginal at the best of times, took a 9.3% hit. And the NDP were the big losers, the lack of union donations playing a big role in a drop of 32.8 per cent.
There are two ways to look at all this.
One is that the Conservatives now have a built-in advantage, their populist support base being more willing to make donations that are disproportionate to their share of the vote - an advantage that will become all the more overwhelming if the subsidies evaporate. Even taking into account that those subsidies are based on share of the popular vote, and thus have given the Tories more money than any other party over the past five years, they're more crucial to the others parties' operations.
The other perspective is that there's more than enough money going around without the subsidies, and that the Conservatives have just been the most successful at attracting it. Rather than complaining and asking for hand-outs, the other parties should fix their own fundraising operations to compete.
Both are a little simplistic, and it's possible to make an argument that either is anti-democratic. But after looking at these numbers, the second one seems a little more credible to me than it did before.