Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I thought money was speech?

There's been much written about how the proposed $1000/year individual political donation limit in the Conservative's Orwellianly-named Accountability Act may scuttle the Liberal leadership convention, and that's true. But I think our self-interest is clouding a more important question here: why does Harper want to limit donations by private Canadian citizens to $1000 in the first place?

I was all for Jean Chretien's campaign finance reforms, which sharply curtailed corporate donations, even though it put the Liberal Party into a financial hole it still hasn't been able to dig itself out of. And I agreed because of concern the influence corporate and union donations can have on the political process. It makes sense to limit that and I agreed, even if some did call it "dumber than a bag of hammers." And you can't call it a partisan-motivated change, because it screwed the corporate donation-reliant Liberals and favoured the Cons and NDP, who get more individual donations.

So, what then, prey tell, is Mr. Harper's rationale for limiting the amount private Canadian citizens can donate to a political party to $1000? Why was $5400 too high? I haven't heard him articulate that. Does he think private citizens are having too much influence on the political process?

His buddy/potential successor in New Brunswick, Conservative Premier Bernard Lord, has proposed legislation that would limit individual donations in his province to $3000? Why is $3000 OK for New Brunswick, but more than $1000 is unacceptable federally?

I'm sure it's only a coincidence that the Conservatives (and the NDP, who support the measure) get more smaller donations while the Liberals get less larger ones, so it's primarily the Liberals that will take the hit here. I'm sure he has some higher morality here than just trying to pass laws to strangle his political opposition.

It wasn't that long ago that Harper was the head of the National Citizens Coalition and the NCC was suing the federal government, arguing restricting third party advertising during election campaigns was unconstitutional. The government didn't want well-funded lobby groups swaying election campaigns with unlimited ad spending, but the NCC argued money was speech and shouldn't be curtailed.

So, tell me Mr. Harper, if money is indeed speech why do you feel average citizens should be silenced but well-heeled special interests and lobby groups should be given a bullhorn?

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Zac said...

It wasn't that long ago that Harper was the head of the Canadian Taxpayers Association

Wasn't he head of the National Citizens Coalition when he sued the government?

Bailey said...

I'm fairly certain it was the NCC.

Good post by the way.

A BCer in Toronto said...

You are both correct, it was indeed the NCC I was thinking of. Thanks for catching that. Sometimes I get my rabid, right-wing lobby groups mixed-up. :)

Zac said...

They're pretty much all the same anyways. No worries.

UWHabs said...

Very true. I mean, $5000 seems reasonable, since it's enough to make a difference, but really not enough to seriously be construed as buying votes or anything like that.

But $1000? I mean, I don't see myself donating that anytime soon, but especially if that includes stuff like convention costs and some fundraising events, I could easily see people not being allowed to actually donate anything beyond events they attend.

Manitoba Liberal said...

I'm all for the $1000 limit, no matter what effect it has on the leadership.

Our party needs some tough love in order to learn how to get off the teat of corporate Canada and our few wealthy donners and start to actually be a force of grassroots level fundraisers.

A party the depends on the grassroots for money, will also have to become dependenet on the grassroots for policy as well.

Harper's silly little politcal games may be the best thing ever for renewal of the Liberal Party.

Either we change or we perish.

Although the irony of Harper suddenly being the man of serious campaign reform is funny considering his old NCC days.

I wonder if the NCC will actually attack Harper for his new views?

Ed King said...

Mr Harper says these reforms are inspired by Quebec's political financing laws. I wonder if he, and others who assume that placing strict limits on contributions is a positive thing, have closely examined the effects these laws have had on Quebec politics.

When it comes to leadership campaigns, it's hard to make a comparison of the two systems because there have been so few since the Quebec laws came into effect. The last five premiers of Quebec (Charest, Landry, Bouchard, Parizeau, D. Johnson) were all acclaimed to the leadership of their party. Before last year's PQ contest, there hadn't been a leadership race in either of the two main parties since 1985. I don't know if the financing laws are to blame for this lack of competitiveness within the parties, but I have no doubt that it would be impossible for 11 campaigns to raise enough money in $1000 donations to effectively compete in any national party.

It is unlikely that the Quebec laws have curbed the influence of the corporate and union sectors, either. Today retired judge Jean Moisan released a report, commissioned by Quebec's chief electoral officer, concluding that GroupAction had contributed over $96,000 to the PQ illegally through its employees while it was receiving contracts from the government of Quebec. A few weeks ago, former PQ cabinet minister Richard Le Hir declared that he had accepted $14,000 in cash from a Montreal consulting firm in 1994 for his campaign. He said that other candidates also received large cash payments.

Corporations and unions have found ways to circumvent the laws; the only difference between the Quebec system and those that allow larger contributions from individuals and legal persons, it seems, is that there is much less transparency in the Quebec system.

Quebec's chief electoral officer recently warned a Commons committee against lowering the maximum contribution to $1,000. The report from Moisan recommends allowing contributions of up to $15,000 from legal persons in order to put an end to "disguised" contributions and improve transparency.

When Jean Chretien introduced political financing reforms in 2002, I was in favour of them because I instinctively assumed that prohibiting large contributions, especially from legal persons, was a good thing. After learning more about the system in Quebec and its problems, I changed my mind. Starving our political parties will probably encourage illegal financing and will certainly increase the influence of think tanks and third party groups like the NCC who have far fewer restrictions on their fundraising abilities. I don't see that as a positive step for our democracy.