True, the Harper government’s project to eliminate part of the public funding of political parties was a cheap and dirty trick. True, the government’s fiscal update was unacceptable: Not only was it devoid of the stimuli needed in these times, it was fraught with gratuitous anti-labour measures. There was more ideology than governance in this document.
Worse, at the outset of a serious economic crisis, when co-operation was badly needed in Parliament, Mr. Harper’s first move was to give the finger to the opposition. This was the height of irresponsibility.
But is this a reason for toppling the government and precipitating Canadians into another election — the other nightmare scenario being a coalition government headed by the most unpopular politician in the country, with Jack Layton as finance minister?
Certainly not, especially now that the government has backed down on three major points: it has withdrawn its proposal to cut public subsidies to parties; it will move up the budget date to Jan. 27, which means it could adopt measures to stimulate the economy in fewer than two months; and it will not remove civil servants’ right to strike. Now, the opposition parties have no reason to engineer their power grab.
Mr. Harper’s latest tactic was cynicism at its worst. But he won an election just six weeks ago, and Canadians can’t go to the polls each time they’re angry at the government. And a coalition government is the last thing we need at a time of economic crisis.
In any case, would the opposition leaders have been so furious if the Finance Minister’s package hadn’t hurt their own interests? The Liberals are especially affected by cuts in party funding because they were already in debt. But nobody will cry over their finances. If they hadn’t depended on lavish donations from corporate Canada for decades, they would have developed the ability to raise funds from party members and sympathizers, just as the Tories have done. This is a healthy tradition the Tories inherited from the Reform party, which relied on small donations from its grassroots, and this is the reason they are flush while the Liberals are deep in debt.
The opposition parties were over-dramatizing when they claimed the proposed cut in public funding would starve them. The allocation of $1.95 per voter is only one part of the set of subsidies financed by taxpayers. The other measures were untouched by the initial government plan. Parties will still benefit from private donations. (Individuals can donate as much as $1,100 to a party and the same amount to a candidate or a riding association.) Donors will still get tax credits.
If our parties are serious organizations, why don’t they ask for contributions from their members and sympathizers, like Barack Obama did? His expensive campaign was in good part financed by millions of modest private donations via the Internet.
If the parties didn’t rely almost exclusively on taxpayers, they would have an incentive to develop new methods of fundraising and to maintain close contacts with their supporters. They could even reach outside the tent, as Mr. Obama did, to the great benefit of the Democratic Party, which has now enlarged its base.
Of course, it is in the interest of democracy that political parties are able to operate freely and rely on stable financing, and the sad fact is that many people don’t put their money where their mouth is.
They won’t open their wallets for the party they root for, even if they have enough money for flat-screen TVs and other sophisticated gadgets. So it’s the responsibility of the state to shore up the parties. But if the political parties are the necessary infrastructure to democracy, the soul of democracy is the involvement of citizens in the political process. Private donations are part of this involvement.