Last week, as the Conservatives opposed the Liberal motion to end out of riding ten-percenter junkmail, then supported it, then opposed it, and then supported it if everyone else supported it (it was among the many Conservative flip-flops last week), they also threw out what many in their camp believe to be a clever ploy: a threat to bring back their attempt to end the per-vote subsidy for political parties.
They’ve since apparently backed off yet again, but I’m sure this threat will be back at some point, possibly as a preferred election trigger to the Afghan detainee document file. After all, would you rather go into an election over withholding documents that would seem embarrassing to your government, or over trying to stop public money from going to political parties? Not a hard choice.
It’s all about politics, of course. The Conservatives do get more real dollars from the subsidy than the opposition parties, because they’ve gotten more votes the last few elections. They have a more robust fundraising operation, though, so dropping the subsidy wouldn’t be as big a hit for them. But the subsidy is a much larger percentage of the budgets of the opposition parties, so really, for the Conservatives this is more about screwing their opposition than it is about democracy.
That’s been par the course on this file for years. In his last days in office, Jean Chretien moved to end corporate and union donations. The Liberals having relied heavily on corporate donations, he left his successor, Paul Martin, with a huge challenge. Chretien brought in the per-vote public subsidy though to compensate for the loss of corporate and union dollars, rightly seeing $1.75 from every voter as a small price to pay for a democratic system freer of corporate and union influence. Then, after the Conservatives came into office, they teamed-up with the NDP to pass a further reform of political financing, again aimed at causing the Liberals grief. Knowing that the Liberals relied on a small number of large donors, as opposed to a large number of smaller donors, the Conservatives, with NDP support, moved to lower the personal donation limit from around $5000 to, today, $1100. They also did it in the middle of the 2006 Liberal leadership race, helping create a mess that still continues today for candidates that budgeted for one set of rules only to have them change mid-campaign.
Since that time, the Conservatives have been routinely making noise about moving to end the per vote subsidy. It has been part of their long-term goal to destroy the Liberal Party as a viable opposition (some would question if we’ve been needing help on that) by bankrupting their opposition. They included such a move in the fiscal update that triggered the coalition crisis, but later backed down. Ironically, by also doing nothing on stimulus or the economy they gave the opposition cover to oppose them; if they’d just done the subsidy dump it would have been hard to risk an election on that issue.
Since that time, though, while there’s still a long ways to go, progress by the Liberal Party in reforming its fundraising machine means that today, the end of the per vote subsidy wouldn’t be the death knell it once was. It would be a handicap, but one that could be overcome. Actually, the party that would be most hurt by the end of the subsidy would be the NDP, which has increased its spending in recent years thanks to the resources provided by the subsidy. It’s ironic, because the Conservatives need a strong NDP to sap Liberal support on the left, so ending the subsidy would be counter-productive to Conservative goals. Ending the subsidy would also hurt parties not in the House, such as the Green Party, that have benefit from per vote subsidy because of their dispersed support across the country.
Still, if the Conservatives insist in trying to kill the per vote subsidy, particularly if they try to do it as a wedge to force an election, I’d like to put forward a counter-proposal: end the subsidy, keep corporate and union donations banned, but raise the personal donation limit back up to $5000.
There was no good reason to lower the cap in the first place. I find it a hard circle to square that Stephen Harper can argue that money is speech when he went to court to fight against third-party election advertising, but he’s willing to abridge the rights of individuals to contribute to the party of their choice. If he wants to end the subsidy, raising the personal limit would be a way to give parties more capacity to compensate for that loss, and would be a difficult move for the Conservatives to argue against effectively and persuasively.
*I’ll be travelling and offline today and throughout the week, so expect some delay in comment approval.