“Follow the money”, goes the familiar saying, if you want to know where the real power resides. In the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom, campaign finance, corporate influence, and corruption are almost daily stories: we in the Young Left realize that most American politicians are in the pocket of big corporate donors, and obviously, recognize that as a serious problem. Democracy requires people to speak, not money, an obvious truism famously overruled in the Citizen’s United decision in 2010. What’s the situation like north of the border? The subject seems curiously removed from public discourse, though obviously it is fundamental to understanding Canadian politics and how our government and society is run: we have to follow the money.
One of the reasons I haven’t paid much attention to this issue in the past is because years ago I learned that Canada’s campaign financing laws were, essentially, phenomenal. Individuals cannot contribute over $1,100, corporations cannot contribute a penny, the government refunds a large percentage of contributions to donors, and, crucially, a per-vote subsidy gives parties a small subsidy for every vote they earn in the previous election (somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2 a vote). These laws restrict the influence of individuals outside of government to unduly influence politics, and ensure that politicians are not especially indebted to corporate or private interests when they are elected. When parties and individual candidates are essentially funded by the government (that is, the collectivity of the tax-payers), they don’t owe their power or position to those who may have aims contrary to those of most Canadians. This paradigm is rapidly changing however, and, most worryingly, it is almost a non-issue in the run up to the 2015 elections.
In 2008, the Conservative minority government tried to change the per-vote subsidy law, in what they claimed was an effort to save money following the financial crisis of that year. The actual money saved would be about $30 million, which, incidentally, is around the same as the Conservative government spent in 2012 on reviving the historic memory of the War of 1812 in Canada to elicit patriotic support in that least patriotic of wars. The Conservatives consistently raise far more than the other parties through individual donations – while they would stand to lose the most money by scrapping the per-vote subsidy because they do have the highest number of popular votes, the other parties who depend on the per-vote subsidy would be hurt far more than the “cash flushed” Tories. The NDP and Bloc, followed by the Liberals, opposed this fundamentally undemocratic action, and threatened to overthrow the Conservatives and set up a coalition government under Liberal leadership. The Conservatives quickly backed down, realizing they had no chance of passing this reform act. In 2008, the opposition parties won a crucial victory for democracy.
By contrast, following the Conservative majority win in 2011, a plan to abolish the per-vote subsidy was quickly passed. By 2015, the year of the next federal election, per-vote subsidies will no longer help political parties fund their campaigns. The opposition parties felt that they had no choice but to accept this change faced with a Conservative majority, and the issue quickly faded from public discourse. This action will not only reduce the efficacy of the campaigning of the major opposition parties (Liberal, NDP, Bloc, and Green), but will also make each and every party more indebted to their individual donors. The Conservatives stand out as the clear winners in this – they raise more money from individual donations than other parties, and thus have managed to effectively cripple the fundraising potential of their opposition. A government which actively seeks to degrade their oppositions influence in the political discourse not through debate or action, but through financial undermining, should be a wakeup call to Canadians that something has to change.
A more minor matter is that of political indebtedness. Because the maximum amount an individual can donate is still reasonably low (which, to be fair, is a measure introduced by the Conservative Party themselves), elected officials will not be as indebted to certain individuals or interests as they are south of the border at present. However, if political parties rely on certain demographics or interests for their financial support, they are, obviously, more likely to represent that interest in government. Because of the youth voting problem, parties are already currently more likely to represent the interests of the older generations that actually elect them to parliament: this results in an undue focus on the opinions and wishes of a certain demographic group in political discourse. This problem is compounded when parties now must rely on individual donors as their sole source of funding. I shouldn’t even need to elaborate on why that is a problem; if you’re unsure, try asking an 18-25 year old for $1,100. I can barely convince my friends to cough up $8 for pizza most nights.
There are also a few serious flaws in an otherwise highly regarded system. One of the most notable flaws is a loophole which allows donors to donate the maximum amount allowed without being recorded by the independent body Elections Canada ($199.99) to each riding association in Canada. Effectively, then, donors can give a party about $60,000 completely under the radar. Critics including Democracy Watch and Global Integrity have pointed out this flaw, which the Conservative government has consistently refused to repair, arguing that “if it’s illegal, no one will do it”. While you’re asking an 18-25 year old for $1,100, try also asking them if the illegality of marijuana prohibits them from using the drug.
Clearly, I think, our campaign financing rules and practices must be better scrutinized in the lead-up and subsequent follow-up of the upcoming election. While we’re on the subject, I think we need to have a much more radical conversation however on the nature of money in politics in general: is there still a place for millions of dollars of donations in politics? I, for one, think not.
With an election this fall, the contribution requests are already beginning. A party which I support sent me an email just yesterday asking for a donation of $5 – quite a bit more reasonable than $1,100. Come to think of it: how many Canadians can really afford to spend over a thousand dollars on political donations, even if they are partially tax-refundable? Single-income families, especially those led by women, immigrants, young single Canadians, and other disadvantaged groups are particularly unlikely to be able to afford to donate any amount of money to politics, especially in the order of $1,100. Reducing the maximum individual contribution from over $5000 was just the start of a process which must continue, with the goal of reducing the amount of money, and the influence money can buy, in politics as much as possible.
A per-vote subsidy, coupled with an individual contribution limit of $250 or less is absolutely necessary to preserving democracy in Canada. Campaigning now and going forward does not need massive amounts of money: grassroots movements, social networks, and social media marketing, along with increased direct communication that digital technologies allow, can allow parties and candidates to mount effective campaigns for very little money. TV and radio ads, large staffs, and professional marketing teams on are on their way out, and we must acknowledge that today and begin preparing for it. Closing loopholes, especially ones which prohibit Elections Canada from acquiring all the necessary contribution information, is an absolutely vital action as well if we are to maintain free and fair elections in Canada. All Canadians deserve to know exactly who donated to each individual or party, regardless of the size of the contribution.
We are already more than half-way there in taking money out of politics as much as practically possible, but we are beginning to see regressions under the Harper regime. Let it remain that in Canada, people speak, not money.