Political parties in Parliament propped up by massive public funding
By Peter Ewart
Fair Voting BC, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, has issued an interesting report on how public funding props up federal political parties to a shocking level (1). The report was written in response to Prime Minister Harper’s claim that, by doubling the length of the election campaign, he is ensuring that it is “funded by the [political] parties themselves rather than taxpayers.”
In contradiction to Harper’s claim, the report shows that, with the extended campaign, the Conservative Party “stands to recoup a larger amount of [publicly funded] money than they would have with a shorter campaign period.” And, furthermore, they are the only party that will likely benefit from the extended campaign and the higher cap on spending. This is because the Conservatives “war chest” is significantly larger than the other parties. Thus they can spend more and receive a much higher subsidy.
The report illustrates how all the political parties in Parliament have received literally hundreds of millions of dollars from the Canadian public to run their election campaigns, mount attack ads, and so on. Leading up to this election, there are four main ways this has been done:
(1) Per-vote subsidy. Up until 2015, when the final payments were phased out by the Harper government, each party received a “per-vote subsidy” from the Canadian public, with the Conservatives amassing $100 million since 2004; Liberal Party – $75 million; NDP – $55 million; and Green Party – $12 million. The total public subsidy: $242 million.
(2) Tax credits to private donors. In 2014, these public subsidies amounted to: Conservatives – $13 million; Liberals – $10 million; and NDP – $6 million. (#note: some figures not available for Green Party and Bloc Quebecois). The total public subsidy: $29 million or more.
(3) Reimbursement of campaign expenses. The three main political parties in Parliament get reimbursed over 50% of their campaign costs from the public purse. In this election, Fair Voting BC estimates that this will amount to: Conservatives – $35 million; Liberal Party – $20 million; and NDP – $13 million. The total public subsidy: $68 million.
(4) Use of government advertising budgets. The report points out that “the governing party has access to a significant advertising budget while in office.” This adds up to $500 million over the last 5 years or about $100 million a year. It further notes that “at least some significant portion of this funding could reasonably be considered to be subsidized partisan advertising.” And it gives the example of Cabinet Minister Pierre Poilievre announcing the government’s $3 billion child benefit payment program, while wearing a Conservative Party golf shirt.
The verdict from the Fair Voting BC report: “It is clear that all federal parties are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers, and the Conservative Party much more so than the others.”
What are the implications of this colossal public funding of these political parties? Well, one thing that should be remembered is that political parties are private organizations. Yet, under the current party-dominated system, public funds prop up these private organizations to a great degree. Take away public funding and the party apparatus as currently organized – PR people, staff, advertising, offices, etc. – would collapse.
Unfortunately, under our party-dominated system, who gets left out in the cold are the voters. It is often said that we get one day of democracy and then four years of virtual dictatorship imposed by whichever party has gained power. For those four years, voters as a whole have virtually no mechanisms to exert influence or control over parliament or government.
While it is true that the parties in Parliament compete with one another, it is also true that they work together and act like a cartel that keeps the public out of decision-making and any meaningful input. Even Independents and small parties have an extremely hard time running because the system is gamed to favour the big parties.
For example, Independent candidates, such as Brent Rathgeber of Alberta (a former Conservative MP), are barred from issuing tax credits to donors until an election is called. Yet party riding associations and parties are allowed to do so (2). As a result, while Independents are severely restricted in raising money before an election campaign starts, parties and party riding associations have free rein to gather cash for years in advance. Rathgeber tried to get an amendment into the Fair Elections Act last year that would allow Independents to do the same, but his amendment failed to make it through a Conservative-dominated parliamentary committee. And that is just one example of the bias.
For its manipulation and undermining of the democratic process, of which there are abundant examples, many Canadians quite rightly want to throw out the current Conservative government, just as the Liberals were quite rightly thrown out in 2006. But we also need to go beyond that aim and address the glaring problems in the electoral system, especially party domination. Without doing so, we will face the same problems no matter who is elected.
One solution: Stop funding political parties with public funds. Why should we, the public, be paying for noxious and defamatory attack ads that debase politics? Or for any other expenses that these private clubs called parties incur?
Instead fund the electoral process itself. Bring in mechanisms that even the playing field in terms of equal access to advertising, media, and other candidate expenses. Take all special interest or private funding right out of the picture. Have candidates – whether connected to a large party, small party or no party – judged on their merit and ideas, rather than the size of their bankroll.
In addition, bring in mechanisms that give the public more control over MPs and more input in decision-making. Break the stranglehold of parties and party whips over elected members of parliament.
And there are other possible solutions to be considered.
In summary, as the evidence in the Fair Voting BC report shows, we face a systemic problem with our current electoral system. This election provides an opportune time to discuss alternatives and solutions.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- “Reality check – Does the Conservative Party really rely less on subsidies than other parties? (Answer: No).” Fair Voting BC. August 4, 2015. http://fairvotingbc.com/2015/08/04/reality-check-does-the-conservative-party-really-rely-less-on-subsidies-than-other-parties/
- Markusoff, Jason. “The happiest politician in Canada?” Maclean’s. Aug. 4, 2015.