A report in La Presse confirms the Conservative government’s (oft-stated) intention to end the per-vote subsidy to political parties. This frightens many Liberal nervous nellies. I think this is an opportunity for the Liberal Party to make a bold move, however. The Liberals should support ending the subsidy, but with one significant addition: raise the limit on personal donations to $5000.
I would like to see the Liberals reframe this debate and seize the agenda by proposing its own political financing legislation: end the per vote subsidy but raise the limit on personal donations from $1100 back up to $5000. Union and corporate donations would remain forbidden.
On the per-vote subsidy, ending it wouldn’t be the calamity for the Liberals many think it would be. At least, it wouldn’t be as mad for us as it would be for others.
The party that would be most hurt by losing the subsidy would be the Bloc Quebecois. The BQ relies on the subsidy for nearly all of their budget, and since they only need to campaign in Quebec, it allows them to run a very strong campaign with barely any fundraising.
The next party that would be most hurt by ending the subsidy would be the NDP. They’ve dramatically escalated their election and between-election spending since the creation of the subsidy, spending at levels they never had before, thanks to the per vote subsidy. Ending it would require a major scaling-back of their budget, and the size of the campaign they could run.
Now, I won’t say the Liberals wouldn’t be hurt. Losing the subsidy would be a blow, without a doubt. Significant adjustments would have to be made (and getting a little leaner wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing). But the fact is we are less reliant on the subsidy than the other opposition parties, and we have been getting (very slowly) better at fundraising.
I am, though, proposing one major change to be coupled with ending the subsidy: raising the personal donation limit to $5000, where it was before the Conservatives and the NDP conspired a few years ago to lower it down to its current level (around $1100), primarily to try to handicap the Liberals.
I think we can make a strong case for restoring it for a number of reasons.
One, public financing was brought in when Jean Chretien’s government ended union and corporate donations, the argument being if you’re going to remove that fundraising capacity from the parties you should give them an alternative, and a small public fee to end the corporate and union influence in politics is a small price to pay. The same holds true here. If you’re going to remove the public subsidy, you should give parties the capacity to be able to replace that funding. That’s an argument of fairness I think will resonate with the public.
Two, why should the government be able to restrict my ability as a private citizen to support the political party of my choice. While I do support reasonable limits (and I think $5000 is reasonable) there are many people who believe money is speech, speech should be unlimited, and the government has no right to abridge the people’s right to speak. One of those people is Stephen Harper. As head of the National Citizens coalition, he argued stridently for the right of third-party pressure groups to spend anything they want, free of election spending limits. He even took it to the Supreme Court in Harper v. Canada. We should ask Harper, if money is speech, why does he believe in free speech for lobby groups but not for individuals?