The devastating revelations about corruption in the construction industry that are hitting Quebeckers on a daily basis are having a perverse effect: Since some of the scandals exposed by the Charbonneau commission concern illegal contributions to political parties by firms vying for contracts, people are now convinced that money and politics are a toxic mix.
The cure, then, is easy – even magical: To eliminate temptation, eliminate money from the political scene, the evil being, of course, private money (bad) as opposed to public money (good).
The idea of transferring the burden of financing political parties to the taxpayers looks timely, which isn't surprising in a province where people have always looked up to powerful institutions for solutions – first the Roman Catholic Church, then the state. Catholicism is practically dead as an institution in Quebec, but its culture is still alive, including a deep suspicion of money – an attitude the Catholic hierarchy, let alone the Vatican, certainly didn't share (but that's another problem).
In any case, the Parti Québécois government, supported by the opposition Coalition Avenir Québec, now intends to limit donations to political parties to $100 a year. The contenders for the leadership of the Quebec Liberals (the party that, so far, has been most tainted by allegations of illegal financing) are outdoing each other with promises to accept as little as possible from their supporters and to spend as little as possible for their campaigns.
This reaction to the corruption scandal looks virtuous, but it's actually a false solution – and counterproductive to boot.
In the past few years, the rules governing political contributions in Quebec have become more and more restrictive. Private contributions have been reduced from $3,000 to $1,000, and the contributions must be sent to the directeur général des élections du Québec, who then hands them over to the intended recipient. Even tiny anonymous donations – of less than $20 – are illegal. A nice system indeed, except that, while greatly reducing the contributions to parties, it has not prevented wrongdoing. Those who want to "buy" an elected official or a public servant just use the age-old trick of cash donations.
Eliminate private donations from the political scene and you'll see more cash circulating underground – or more "volunteers" from businesses or unions to lend a helping hand to a candidate during election campaigns.
This illusory quest for absolute purity risks undermining our democratic institutions.
What's the basis of a healthy democracy? Political parties, of course. And they must be financed, at least in part, by their members to have a life of their own. Otherwise, they risk becoming empty shells living off government subsidies. A political party that doesn't have to rely on its grassroots gradually loses touch with the rank and file. The leaders don't have to bother listening to the militants. And the militants don't feel, as they should, that it's their duty to contribute even a small sum of money to help advance the ideas they believe in.
The current wave of scandals is giving way to the pervasive feeling that all politicians are crooks waiting to be corrupted and that anyone who wishes to donate to a political party is motivated by self-interest.
This unfortunate turn of events is yet another case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The bathwater might be dirty, but the baby is precious. Its first name is democracy.