Subsidizing the vote
The new Conservative government has been remarkably effective in its first months in power. To date it has eliminated the national gun registry, tabled their omnibus crime bill and introduced legislation cracking down on both human smugglers and refugees. Now the Harper government has set its sights on per-vote subsidies. It says that cutting the subsidies will save $30 million annually.
The move, however, should not be seen as for the benefit of tax payers but as an attack on Canada’s democracy.
In 2003, the Chretien-led Liberal government passed legislation creating a per-vote subsidy — $2 a year for every vote a federal party received in the most recent election. The move, which also capped corporate donations, was intended to take concern over party money out of Canada’s political process and have parties focus on their message rather than fundraising.
While the Conservative Party currently holds a large lead in party finances due to an exceptionally well organized system of grassroots donors, the other parties are not so far behind. The Liberal Party, believed by many to be the target of the subsidy cuts, will not disappear due to lack of funding – there are as many on the left willing to donate as there are on the right.
However, Canada’s right is united under Stephen Harper and the Conservative flag, Canada’s left is divided between the Liberal Party and the New Democrats, splitting the donor base. The subsidy cuts could very likely be the final push towards a Liberal-NDP merger, which will cause the de facto death of the Liberal Party of Canada, a goal of Harper’s since he entered politics.
More pressing than what the cuts will do to the landscape of Canada’s political parties is what they will do to Canada’s democracy.
While the subsidies did not completely eliminate money from the electoral playing field, they helped create a balance that fostered greater competition between party messages. Canada’s democracy should function on the principle that the party whose message best resonates with Canadians wins the race — not the party with the largest bank account.
Political parties are public entities that strive to govern all Canadians, not just their paying members, and as such should be funded on an equal basis. Democracies should be a function of the people, not the dollar.
Ironically, it was the Bloc Quebecois, the champions of separatism and the breakup of the nation that benefited the most from the subsidies, which accounted for as high as 90 per cent of their party budget. While many will be pleased to see the separatists forced out, democracy recognizes their right to function as a party and serve their voters.
It is undeniable that, until the last election, the BQ was the voice of Quebec despite its comparative lack of funding. It is a fundamental function of democracy that those with enough support garner representation. Because one party cannot raise the same amount of money as another, such a disadvantage should not detract from that party’s worth— nor should the erosion of representation via financial attrition sit well with any proponent of democracy.