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The Globe and Mail

Crosscheck: From John Cummins, an idea whose time may have come

" A new B.C. Conservative government would take big money out of politics by banning provincial political donations from corporations and unions." John Cummins, announcing his candidacy for leadership of the B.C. Conservative Party

Veteran Conservative politician John Cummins has brought an idea to British Columbia that for the most part works well in the federal arena.

Political scientist Lisa Young, from the University of Calgary, says a ban on corporate donations to federal political parties has improved public confidence in the system. "There isn't that sense that corporations or unions are unduly influencing the process," she says.

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The federal Liberal government introduced limits on contributions from individuals, corporations, unions and associations in 2004. The Conservative government in 2006 went further, completely banning contributions from all but individuals.

Candidates in the May 2 federal election can receive donations of up to $1,100 from individuals and that's it. Nothing from corporations, associations or unions. To compensate for the loss of money, the government provides for public subsidies to help ensure funds are available for candidates to bring their message to the electorate during the campaign. In the current election, candidates will receive $2 for every vote they receive.

Prof. Young said a problem remains with some who try to work around the rules. Political parties that feel they do not have enough money to contest an election try to find creative ways around the rules, she said. Anecdotal evidence has indicated that in some instances, corporate cheques have been replaced by personal contributions from every executive.

Political parties may not go looking for those donations if public subsidies are sufficient, she added. "It's a fine balancing act."

Mr. Cummins, who decided to run for the leadership of the provincial Conservatives after 18 years as an MP, has firsthand experience with the shift in political financing. Based on election results, the restrictions on contributions to federal political campaigns had virtually no impact on the outcome in his riding.

He had a lot less money to spend during a campaign, but his support remained unchanged. He raised only $29,315 in 2008, compared to $88,176 in 2000 before the contributions were banned. But he did not need the extra tens of thousands of dollars to win. He received 56 per cent of the vote in 2008. Eight years earlier, with much more money, he won with 57 per cent of the vote.

Mr. Cummins may also be aware that the federal Conservative Party did not suffer as a result of the change in election financing. Quite the opposite, The Conservative Party does a much better job than its rivals in raising funds from individuals. Reports filed with Elections Canada show that the Conservatives took in $17.3-million in 2010 while the Liberals raised $7-million and the NDP $4.5-million.

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Provincially, the impact of a change in election financing is unclear. The Liberals received 70 per cent of their campaign funding in 2009 from corporations and associations. Contributions from unions accounted for 40 per cent of the NDP's funds, with the majority of its money coming from individuals.

Mr. Cummins could find support among New Democrats in the province, especially since a similar proposal for election-financing reform was part of a "good government" package that former NDP leader Carole James promoted beginning in 2005. But the B.C. Liberals, who repeatedly shot down Ms. James's efforts, may not be as open to his idea.

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