If you're wondering how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might revamp federal fundraising rules to get out of the cash-for-access controversy, it's worth looking at the lessons of history: The great leaps in federal fundraising ethics have gone hand in hand with screwing over the other guy.
Jean Chrétien did it, adopting new rules that made life difficult for his inside-the-party rival, Paul Martin. Stephen Harper did it – realizing that lower donation limits would give his Conservatives a valuable edge over the Liberals.
So it should be no surprise that some of the Liberal MPs leaving the Commons last week for Christmas break were thinking there must be a way to dump a lump of coal on opponents.
One Liberal MP, speaking on background, mused that he'd like to do away with political donations altogether, replacing them with a per-vote taxpayer subsidy. That will clear up the questions the opposition keep complaining about, but also negate the traditional advantage the Conservatives have long held in collecting donations, he said. The Liberals won more votes, so they'd get more subsidy.
It's hard to imagine any government would dare to do that, even if they were inclined. But there's definitely talk in Liberal circles about reviving per-vote subsidies, perhaps to "compensate" for losing revenue from new restrictions.
Certainly, the instinct to use the tightening of fundraising rules as an opportunity to hinder a rival is part of Canada's political history.
Mr. Chrétien was struggling with mounting cynicism back in 2002 when he first embraced campaign reforms. In those days, companies and unions could donate as much as they wanted, as long as it was reported. Mr. Chrétien gave speeches at big fundraisers that pulled in huge sums. Big banks donated tens of thousands of dollars each year.
But so did companies that made a lot of money off the government's sponsorship program. That was one of the reasons Mr. Chrétien felt under pressure to curb corporate donations. And there was also the fact that his ministers were off raising cash for leadership campaigns.
So Mr. Chrétien got the itch for reform. He insisted ministers had to publicly report leadership-campaign donations. That didn't apply to Mr. Martin, who had already quit cabinet, but it embarrassed him with pressure to release the names of donors who had already given him huge sums.
Then Mr. Chrétien decided to ban most corporate and union donations, and limited personal contributions to $5,000. That upset Mr. Martin's supporters, who felt the outgoing leader was hobbling them with restrictions that would take effect just after Mr. Chrétien left office. The Liberal Party nearly broke out into civil war. But in the end, they had to suck it up, with one consolation – Mr. Chrétien instituted a system of per-vote subsidies for political parties.
But that still left the Liberals scrambling for cash when Mr. Martin took over. The party didn't have the kind of small-donation fundraising machine that the Conservatives had developed. So the Liberals quietly organized cocktail parties where Mr. Martin mingled with 30 or 40 guests who paid $5,000 a head – much like the small events Mr. Trudeau is doing now.
When Mr. Harper took office, he pressed his advantage. At the time, the Conservatives raised more of their money from smaller donations of a few hundred dollars, while the Liberals relied on collecting bigger sums. Mr. Harper cut the donation limit from $5,000 to $1,000, and gave his party a bigger edge. The candidates who had just finished a Liberal leadership race when the law was changed in 2006 found they had to repay their debts by raising smaller sums.
Mr. Harper also found it could be dangerous to go too far. The first time he tried to eliminate the per-vote subsidy, in 2008, his minority government was almost toppled. He waited till he won a majority before trying again.
So what will Mr. Trudeau do now? He faces a controversy over ministers going to small fundraisers with relatively high-priced tickets, but Liberals won't want to bar ministers from going to fundraisers unless it affects some opposition politicians, too. If they impose new restrictions, the return of per-vote subsidies might help them make up lost revenues, and provide more to their coffers than to those of their opponents. His predecessors, anyway, usually found a way to turn fundraising reforms against rivals.