Mark Kennedy, The Vancouver Sun, 4 October 2011
The Harper government was accused of weakening Canadian democracy by its political rivals Tuesday after it introduced legislation to scrap direct taxpayer subsidies for federal parties.
Opposition parties said the Conservative government is dismantling a financing system that provides a level playing field for parties and helps keep them from being overly dependent on courting Canadians for political donations.
The change also could depress voter turnout, critics argue, by robbing Canadians of an incentive to cast their votes — the $2 per vote federal subsidy paid to the party of their choice.
Moreover, the Tories were accused Tuesday of pressing ahead with the contentious bill for one simple, selfish reason: to bankrupt the Liberal party.
But the Conservatives insisted otherwise, arguing that they are motivated by a desire to clean up politics and treat taxpayers' dollars with greater care.
While the opposition parties once almost defeated the Tories over the issue in 2008, they now acknowledge there is nothing that they can do to stop the Conservative majority.
"This is heartbreaking," said NDP MP David Christopherson, who spoke for his party.
"I know at first blush people will say, 'Why should I pay for party activities?' But if you don't as a public, then that means political parties will be spending more time figuring out how to raise money to win elections. When money and politics meet, that's when we get into trouble in democracies."
Christopherson said the public financing system introduced by former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien in 2003 was his greatest contribution to the democratic system.
"This is one of those components that makes our democracy strong, makes it transparent, and makes it an example for others to follow around the world. Today's announcement takes us backwards in building our democracy."
He said the Tories will be least affected by the change because they are more likely than their opponents to be bankrolled through direct donations from Canadians.
"What this says is that if you don't have enough money, then your voice doesn't get to be heard in our political dialogue," said Christopherson. "It means those that have the richest friends will have the most money."
But Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal said the bill is part of the government's continuing efforts to bring greater integrity to the political financing system.
"Political parties should do their own fundraising and not live off of taxpayer-funded handouts," he said. "A vote at the ballot box shouldn't mean money in the pockets of political parties."
Under legislation tabled by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the move will be implemented over three years and eventually save nearly $30 million annually for the federal treasury.
It could cause critical financial shortfalls for many of the parties — although the NDP and Liberals insisted Tuesday that they will get by without the funds.
Ultimately, it will mean all parties will have to become much more aggressive and sophisticated in persuading Canadians to make their own donations.
Uppal said parties already receive "considerable public support" through two other measures — their ability to issue tax receipts to encourage people to donate directly to them, and their right to receive government-funded rebates to help cover election campaign expenses. The Tories are not proposing to drop either of those measures.
Still, opposition parties say the government is not being truthful and that a darker political agenda is at play.
Christopherson said Harper is intent on eliminating the Liberals, traditionally the Conservatives' main opponent.
"We know they've got the Liberals in their sights. They want them to completely vaporize and to become nothing but a footnote in history."
Green party leader Elizabeth May agreed: "This is pure and simple, going-for-the-kneecap politics. And if the Green party is roadkill on the way to killing the Liberal party, he won't mind."
May acknowledged that her party and others will face "significant challenges" raising enough money to finance their operations.
The subsidies were introduced by Chretien as part of legislation designed to clean up the political system. The Liberal government banned corporate donations to political parties. Corporations were only allowed to make a single donation of a maximum $1,000 for a candidate.
May said the public financing system made Canada "the envy of the world."
"It was about improving fairness and transparency in democracy to ensure our political campaigns never looked anything like the crazed cash grab that goes on in U.S. politics."
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said the government's bill is "not in the best traditions of Canadian democracy." He said the Liberals believe the subsidies are "an important element of public support" for parties that became necessary once the laws were changed to remove the influence of corporations.
Rae said it's clear the Tories are ending subsidies because they have a strong fundraising machine in place.
"They've decided to take advantage of that," said Rae. "They're practicing hardball.
"We have to up our game and we have to be in a position where we're raising money to be able to compete with them."
Under the current system, any party that receives more than two per cent of the vote in a general election receives a subsidy of roughly $2 per year for each vote the party received. Last year, the public subsidies cost the federal treasury $27 million.
Under the Tories' phase-out plan, the existing $2-per-vote subsidy will be reduced to $1.50 per vote next year — reducing the annual cost to government to $20.5 million. In 2013, the subsidy will drop to $1 per vote, reducing the cost to $13.7 million. And in 2014, the per-vote subsidy will be 50 cents, costing $6.8 million. By 2015-16, the subsidy will disappear.
In absolute terms, killing the public subsidies will hurt the Tories the most. But relative to total funds raised, the Conservatives will have the least to lose.
Last year, the Conservatives received $10.4 million in subsidies and raised $17.4 million on their own. The Liberals received $7.2 million in subsidies and raised $6.4 million themselves.
The NDP received $5 million in subsidies and raised $4.3 million themselves. The Bloc Quebecois received $2.7 million in subsidies and raised $641,612. And the Green party received $1.8 million in subsidies and raised $1.2 million themselves.