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Gerry Nicholls

Take the roof off campaign donations Add to ...

I have an idea to reform our democratic system that's so radical it will be met with scorn, ridicule and disbelief - and that's only what my mother will think. So what's my idea?

Well, I propose we change the laws so that money - long considered the root of all evil in politics - can play a bigger role in our democratic process. More specifically, I suggest we scrap the current campaign finance law, which imposes a severe limit on how much money citizens can voluntarily contribute to political parties.

Right now, those individual contribution limits are set at an absurdly low level - $1,100 each for party and riding associations.

Why not allow Canadians the freedom to contribute as much as they wish, especially now that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will eliminate the "per vote" public subsidy for political parties? This at least would give the Liberals and other opposition parties a fighting chance to raise the money they would need to effectively operate.

Why is this radical? Because for a lot of Canadians the idea of lifting campaign contributions is tantamount to political heresy. After all, the conventional wisdom in this country views money as kind of corruptive poison that must be purged. Otherwise, the "rich" will use fat contributions to influence our elected leaders.

This viewpoint, while widespread, also reflects a profoundly depressing take on both politics and humanity. For one thing, it assumes politicians are for sale to the highest bidder.

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of politicians are actually honest. They make their policy decisions based on many factors other than on who contributes to their campaigns, including ideology, party discipline and public opinion.

Why it is always assumed people who contribute large sums of money to political parties have evil motivations? Likely this reflects an ideological bias against people in business. Simply put, contribution limits are seen as a way to insulate politicians from the greedy clutches of "money-grubbing" capitalists.

Yet there is actually no evidence capitalists ever exerted undue influence on our political system before the contribution limits were put in place in 2003.

On the contrary, the plethora of anti-business taxes, rules and regulations suggests the needs of the business community have always ranked low on the political priority list.

And as someone who has worked on political fundraising in both Canada and the United States, I can tell you the vast majority of donors contribute money to politicians because they believe in certain values and ideals. The only thing donors expect in return for their contributions is that politicians keep their promises.

Of course, there will always be those who will donate money as a way to influence government policy. But imposing campaign contribution limits won't stop this from happening. All it will do is cause influence-seekers to hire more lobbyists or to outright bribe politicians.

Plus there's another side effect to contribution limits: They greatly benefit incumbents. Mr. Harper, for instance, enjoys not only name recognition, but all the other advantages that come with incumbency.

To offset those advantages, opposition parties have to spend money, and lots of it, to get their ideas out to the Canadian public. In short, contribution limits hinder the ability of political parties to raise money and their ability to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

The bottom line is as long as political contributions are transparent, as long as voters know who is contributing to whom and with how much, limits are not needed. They only serve to impair democracy.

Money is the lifeblood of politics; we need to let it flow freely.

Gerry Nicholls is a communications consultant.

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