Levelling the playing field — let’s go all the way

Russell Wangersky
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In Ottawa, they’re preparing to “level” the elections financing playing field.

What will be level, of course, is that all political parties will lose per-vote federal subsidies and will be left to raise funds primarily from individual Canadians. Not corporations, not unions, and no individual donations over $1,000.

Since the federal Conservatives already have the most sophisticated fundraising system in the country, the levelling is a lot like suggesting that your neighbourhood convenience store is welcome to compete on price with Wal-Mart.

The convenience store doesn’t have a chance in that scenario, but what odds? It’s a free market and, oh yes, “a level playing field.”

While this particular “level” is guaranteed to benefit the Conservatives the most, the idea isn’t all bad: if political parties all had the same opportunity to put forward their platforms and seek the support of the electorate, we might actually get policy statements, rather than endless attack ads right back to the beginning of a campaign and even earlier.

And maybe the levelling should go further.

Right now, the federal tax system benefits taxpayers in the middle class and higher by offering tax credits to offset your political donations. You can get as much as 75 per cent of your donation back, so essentially, the taxpayer is subsidizing your donations.

But donations like that only make sense if you’re making enough money to actually get a break on your taxes.

The more well-off you are, the more likely you are to get a larger share of your money back from your political donation. In other words, parties aren’t likely to receive much in the way of donations — or recognize the political desires of — anyone below a certain financial point.

Let’s level that playing field — a donation to a political party should not, for tax purposes, essentially be treated more favourably than a donation to a registered charity. Cancel tax offsets for political donations, and let those who are truly invested in the political process actually invest their own money, not the taxpayers’.

Likewise, let’s stop refunding federal candidates a share of their election expenses. Right now, candidates who garner a certain share of the vote in a federal election get rebates from Elections Canada. If the taxpayer shouldn’t be funding political parties (the whole reason that the Conservatives now want to get rid of per-vote subsidies), they shouldn’t be funding individual candidates, either.

Representatives of newer parties, or those trying to find a foothold in a particular part of the country, are tacitly the subject of uneven financial treatment. Parties and candidates should fund their own campaigns, and not go begging for rebates — either nationally or individually.

Finally, let’s even the whole thing out: cap the amounts that parties can spend on expenses, campaign or no campaign.

Set a reasonable number for total campaign spending at the beginning of a Parliamentary term  and allow parties to spend it whenever they like during that period. Right now, parties are restricted in how much they can spend once the campaign begins, but the whole concept of having that level playing field is destroyed when one well-heeled party or another launches advertising campaigns long before an election begins.

Spend to your four-year limit any time during the term that you like — but reach the limit and you stop.

That way, no one can skew an election by simply opening the taps to a deluge of pre-campaign advertising.

We’re coming up to a provincial election in this province. While every party has the same level playing field, one party has an extremely hefty bank balance, while another one is in the hole.

It’s hard to understand how that disparity serves to maintain true democracy.

A level playing field is a wonderful idea — it’s strange the way “level” always seems to tilt towards the party in power.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Conservatives, Elections Canada

Geographic location: Ottawa, Russell

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Recent comments

  • Sasha Shimizu
    June 08, 2011 - 10:26

    I whole heartfelt agree. There should be a cap to total fundraising, period. Attack ads and pre election ads should be illegal. All ads should be factual and if not there should be mechanism in place for complaints, etc.

  • Mike
    June 07, 2011 - 23:53

    Astounding. So what if someone rich makes a thousand dollar contribution and gets 750 of it back. And conversely, so what if I give 100 dollars and only get 75 of it back. The point is, people should have the choice to contribute to a party of their choosing or withhold that money. Every party should do its own fund raising. Which really means, get the support from the people who really, and I mean, REALLY give a damn about the party. What it boils down to is, the voter subsidy was brought about because the Liberals were lazy in their fund raising efforts, as is typical of the socialist ideal. Why should someone who might have "some" issue with a particular party they normally like but want to strategically vote for another party for whatever reason, subsidize that other party indirectly by subsidy? Afterall, this is exactly what went on in the last few elections, in particular this most recent one. All the parties can garner support however they want through their own efforts at fund raising. Afterall, if people really do care about one party or another, they will contribute. It should never be forced taxation, which is what this really is. And if a rich dude contributes 1000 to any party of his choice gets that $750 back in tax deductions, good for him.

  • Geraldine M Chafe
    June 07, 2011 - 23:17

    I believe the Party subsidies should be left alone. This seems to me to be an investment in our Democracy, ^NOT the spin the Harper Cons put on it. " Finally, let’s even the whole thing out: cap the amounts that parties can spend on expenses, campaign or no campaign. " well said Russell Wangersky. ...nice to see a piece which shows the writer has a memory and discusses things with relevance. Bravo! Always good to get the view of those Back Home. Regards.

  • Maggy Carter
    June 07, 2011 - 16:31

    Wangersky shows extraordinary naivety when it comes to the murky world of political finance. Commissioned bagmen, slick fund raising schemes, nominal dollar receipts for purchases, the in-and-out scam for which the Harper Tories were already convicted, and - when all else fails - the manilla envelope stuffed with cash. Where once the corporation coughed up with the full $25,000 donation that guaranteed its place at the public trough, it now takes fewer than a half dozen senior executives, directors or shareholders to spontaneously volunteer a donation that keeps the gravy coming. Last year it was reported that an analysis of Elections Canada records identified 20 patronage appointees who had given money to the Conservative party or its candidates. But there are so many other ways to reward generous donors. Eliminating the per-vote subsidy merely shifts party financing to a donor system in which the taxpayer is still on the hook for 75% (more than 100% after admin costs are included) of the shortfall. The principal difference of course is that, whereas the per-vote subsidy was equitable to all parties, the new arrangement heavily favours the governing party. The public - like Wangersky - will probably view this latest move favourably, thinking it will shift the burden from taxpayers to the hordes of affluent $1,000-$5,000 private donors who, of course, seek nothing in return. You might as well tell them Santa drops it off in a sack.

  • Mark
    June 07, 2011 - 10:03

    ''...cap the amounts that parties can spend on expenses, campaign or no campaign.'' No - because that would only make the government more powerful by giving them a monopoly on communications with citizens. Nobody caps what they pay between elections.

  • Murray
    June 07, 2011 - 08:17

    To paraphrase Woody Allen: democracy is the most beautiful thing money can buy.