The left needs to reconsider public funding of parties
May 28, 2011

The left needs to reconsider public funding of parties

With Harper's recent majority it was inevitable that his party would start pushing through policies that were not politically possible when they only had a minority. The first major example is going to be in campaign finance - in particular, phasing out the per vote public subsidy of political parties. This will be the first major new policy, to be introduced as the budget tables (identical in most other regards to the one defeated in March).  This is such a contentious issue that it was the trigger point of the opposition's proposed coalition and Harper's subsequent prorogation in 2008.

Campaign finance reform is always a tricky subject because of the overbearing realpolitik that changes usually give advantages to one party over another and so parties tend to support or oppose changes not based on their democratic principles but on whether they are beneficial to the party or not.  Because of the Conservative's strong ability to do grassroots fundraising among a base willing and able to give political donations they get a considerable relative advantage in ending public funding of political parties. The Liberals, and to a lesser degree the NDP, will be hurt and parties like the Bloc, which previously got 85% of its funding from the per vote subsidy, will be decimated (if it wasn't already). It is thus hard to take seriously any arguments from other side that they are arguing based on democratic principles and not calculating political considerations - especially when the cuts may even provide existential threats.

Before considering the case for and against public funding, it is important to note that what the Liberals are proposing is clearly going the wrong direction.  Faced with the inevitable elimination of the per vote subsidy they are scrambling by requesting the raising of the campaign donation limits above its current level of $1100.  With the elimination of most corporate and union campaign funding in the 2003 reforms, the Liberals took a large beating and with the elimination of the per vote subsidy they take yet another. Raising the donation limit is possibly effective way to keep the party coffers competitive. The democratic effect, however, results in a further shifting of the balance of power towards the wealthier classes who are willing and able to spend in excess of $1100 dollars. Many of the arguments for public financing beyond political expediency - which the Liberals ostensibly support - are about moving away from giving power to a specific class of people and having a more egalitarian democracy. To abandon public funding as a lost cause and shift towards a policy that by directly goes against these goals of public funding is both bad policy and disingenuous politics.

There is a dangerous slippery slope that has been realized in the United States. In Canada, the average parliamentary campaign costs about 70,000 dollars while the average federal congressional campaign in the US costs upwards of 750,000 dollars.  That order of magnitude difference matters. One can make strong arguments that the necessity of acquiring enormous amounts of political funding has resulted in a democracy that is very much stilted towards rich special interests and away from the average voter. With the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that now allows corporations to effectively spend unlimited amounts of undisclosed money in politics that balance is set to tip even further. Obama, for instance, is planning on raising an unbelievable one billion dollars for the 2012 election; it should not be a surprise given this how fundamentally beholden his policies are to the major business interests such as financial and pharmaceutical that backed him heavily in a 2008.

There is a fairly clear progression some, particularly on the right, would like to see. Eliminate the public subsidies, increase campaign limits, allow corporate donations back in and pretty soon Canada's world class campaign finance system, that was used as a model for countries like Australia, starts to look a lot more like the US's. That political necessity drives the Liberals to take two steps, not the one of the Conservatives, demonstrates the kind of bipartisan way that this path can be walked.

Like many things, there is an ideological argument and a utilitarian argument. Some people are ideologically opposed to the idea of public spending on political parties and that there is something fundamentally wrong about the idea of using taxpayer dollars to fund politicians one doesn't necessarily agree with. However, it is important to recognize that having an effective and egalitarian democracy is a legitimate public good - perhaps the ultimate public good. Spending public money to provide public goods is the appropriate role for government just as it would be for spending on, say, defense or fire departments which most Canadians do not ideologically oppose. The question must reduce to the utilitarian question of some sort of cost benefit analysis of the relative benefits of public funding of political parties against its cost. If it is clearly a reasonable benefit for a reasonable cost then it should be supported; our democracy is worth spending some money on to make it good. Considering that the costs are only 27 million - relatively tiny in the scope of the budget but important for the parties - it reduces largely to what benefits are bestowed as the costs are minor.

In my view, the place where political activity and civic engagement ought to happen, and currently happens too little, is at the community and local level. Widespread grassroots civic engagement, where the people bring the issues to the political class, and not vice versa, is the optimal model for the source of funding. I have numerous issues with conservative ideology and policies, and certainly don't like the level of rich elitism that permeates the party, but nonetheless the advantage in grassroots organizing that they manage to do in both Canada and the US should be commended.  More importantly, it should be followed by the left which must try to get its funding at the community level.

Public financing is not something that is categorically or ideologically good or bad. It depends on the context of society and state of democracy in a given country. Two of the major advantages of it are that it decreases the level of political corruption by vested interests and that it promotes stability in the political process through entrenching established parties. In many countries, these two things are incredibly important, necessitate public funding, and can be traced to many good democratic outcomes in places like Latin America. However, given the strength of the transparency system in Canada there is little worry about under the radar corruption and provided we work to maintain restrictions on official influence from vested elites that advantage is rather moot. Likewise, there is a relatively stable and established kabal of parties in Canada (despite the Bloc's destruction) the stability of which isn't significantly changed by whether there is public funding or not. So while these are important benefits, they do not apply in Canada.

The major advantage which still does exist is promoting egalitarianism - a value I generally am very supportive of.  It allows political parties to not be beholden to a narrow class of people - those with the ability and will to donate reasonable amount of money - but frees them to promote policies that wide groups of people support.  However, in a country with an engaged and established democratic civil society there is little need for further public funding because that can be provided through the kinds of civic engagement that both provides the funds and deemphasizes the need for much of what funds provide such as the thirty second television commercial which suffers enormous concision problems. Canada isn't there yet, but we can be.

One other factor is about the relative amount of money in the system to be spent on campaigns. It is valuable to our democracy for some amount of money to be spent by parties as it helps inform the population about the platforms and and encourages engagement and more informed and engaged populations can make better decisions benefiting society. That said, I would submit that the majority of the money in today's political campaigns is spent on things that hamper or at least don't help increase political awareness and engagement. The most expensive item, the 30 second TV commercial, is structurally incapable of this due to the problems of concision and effectiveness of partisan attack ads. This last election has proven just how effective the money advantage was at attacking in particular Ignatieff in TV ads. Our democracy does not need more money in the political system and moreover the increased money is, far from promoting informed and engaged citizenry, actually hampering it.

The per vote subsidy doesn't go to individual candidates, it goes to the party who then distributes it as it sees fit. I believe Canada is overly party-centric and insufficiently individual-centric, to our detriment. A functioning democracy is bottom up, not top down and the party-centric model is a top down model. When coupled with a parliamentary system that already gives a lot of power to party leadership, this should be avoided. When individuals are left to their own grassroots organizing and funding efforts in their own constituencies it promotes more bottom up, local democracy.

Given all of the above, I believe progressives on the left should support Harper on ending public financing. It will help to reduce the amount of money in the political system which is currently a negative factor in our society. Perhaps more importantly, it will force the parties to put more emphasis on the kinds of grassroots, community organizing that we sorely need. The left needs to get better at this and organizing itself into powerful movements of the people that can set the political agenda and provide what funds the parties need to get information out there.  Obama did very well in 2008 with the $50 political donation. That is where the emphasis should be. There is a corroborating factor that putting the emphasis on grassroots fundraising actually starts changing the political capital formula where engaged citizenry votes not based on limited platitudes and baseless attacks but are instead the product of engaged and informed citizen actions. Combined with a shifting emphasis towards individuals, ending campaign funding can be a good thing for our democracy.

This endorsement of the Conservative position comes with important caveats. The campaign limits must not be significantly increased beyond inflation and the kinds of corporate donations that the US supreme court has now allowed must not happen. The Liberal proposal is no good in this case.  I believe that the political left can engage with constituents to minimize the funding gap that Conservatives excel at. But in order to prevent politics being dominated by the interests of the upper middle class willing to spend $1100 a person they have to actually do this effectively and engage with a wider swatch of the population to remain egalitarian.

As a small final point, the legislation in Canada still does not require electronic filings of campaign disclosures the way they do in the US. It should be a matter of a few minutes searching on Google to be able to find out precisely how much was received by what groups of people and how much was spent on what types of things. This is typically not the case.  Canada's system is very good at being transparent to the Canadian Electoral authority and, as I say, should be a model for other countries with public party funding. However, it is not sufficiently available in convenient forms to the public.

Ultimately, while we can have an academic discussion about the merits of public funding, the reality in the short to medium term is that the Harper government is going to accomplish the goal of eliminating them. The left is not without options; it can, and should, focus on the kinds of local, individual, community, grassroots organizing I hope for. The goal should not be to simply wait to reinstate public funding whenever the left next gets back in power, it should be to make it so by that time the public funding is irrelevant because the grassroots funding is so predominant. 

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