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 email@example.com.