Dwindling Democracy: The End Of Public Campaign Financing

flickr.com Stephen Harper
flickr.com Stephen Harper
flickr.com Stephen Harper

On the first of April this year, a fundamental shift in Canada’s democracy will be complete.

The per-vote-subsidies federal political parties have received since the Liberal government of Jean Chretien in 2004 will be eliminated on this day. The subsidy—in 2011 valued at $2.03 per year per vote—has been gradually lowered by $.51 each April 1st since 2012 as part of the 2011 Conservative budget. The significance of this may seem unclear; but let me assure you, this is a political coup d’etat designed to upend one of the world’s most progressive electoral finance policies and preserve Tory power.

The measure places all burden of campaign funding on private donors. This means that political parties will need to focus heavily on fundraising to ensure they can campaign effectively. The most effective fundraising machine in the Canadian political landscape is the Conservative Party.

According to Elections Canada, the Conservatives raised $18.1 million from 80,135 contributors in 2013—nearly $7 million more cash and nearly 9000 more contributors than the Liberal Party, their nearest competitors. The Conservatives average donation sits at just over $225 while the Liberals sit at just over $155.

This kind of fundraising domination is possible because the Conservatives represent the moneyed interests in our society. Tax cuts and credits, deregulation, and social programming cuts to fund lost revenues dominate their agenda. It is these interests who have money to burn on political campaigns. It is these interests who benefit most from the abolition of per-vote subsidies.

This is because the subsidies have always made up far less of the Conservative war chest than the other major parties. What the subsidies did was level the playing field to some extent; allowing parties to focus on issues important to constituents rather than pandering to the financial elite to fill their coffers. It also ensured parties would be compensated for their public support, rather than just the support of those with enough disposable income to contribute to political parties.

The Conservatives justified this move under the auspices of austerity. According to budget documents, eliminating the subsidies will save $30 million dollars per year. This may be true, but this amount is a tiny drop in a huge budget, one which included tax credits and cuts amounting to far more than this. Was this worth sabotaging a program that ensures a base level of equality in speech? I think not. Nor do I believe savings were the intent.

It is clear the Conservative Party knows they hold the balance of fundraising power. Just as they sought to marginalize populations who wouldn’t typically vote for them with Pierre Poilievre’s ill-fated voter identification legislation last year, they are seeking to silence millions of voters whose only choice for giving to their party of choice lies at the ballot box. By taking political capital from these people, they are striking a major blow to their political foes by choking financial resources needed to effectively campaign.

The near total lack of coverage of this issue since the 2011 budget measures is inexcusable. It is the duty of our media to constantly question our leaders and in leaving this issue out of editorial pages, they have failed. Political parties will be forced to resort to American-style retail politics, equality of speech will be eroded, and near-hegemonic power will be afforded to one political party.

If we refuse to act against these measures—at the ballot box and beyond—we are allowing the subversion of our democracy. It is a quiet, unassuming tyranny, but a tyranny nonetheless. Be aware of the implications and fight back with your words and votes in 2015.

Article by Mike Westwick

Connect with Mike on Twitter @westwick_m

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