The federal government introduced legislation gradually to end the subsidy regime for political parties this week. Since 2003, political parties obtain from government a special subsidy per vote received in the previous federal election. At current rates, the total subsidy for political parties amounts to $27 million a year.
The legislation has an interesting pedigree. It was the thought of seeing this revenue source stripped from them that jolted opposition parties into their attempt to topple the Harper minority government in 2008. We still hear charges of partisanship coming from opposition parties, though the Conservatives will lose the largest amount of any party, $17 million.
There are surely political considerations in the elimination of the subsidy. But that alone is no reason to stop its demise. The original 2003 bill directing public money to political parties was non partisan in the sense that it was not specifically designed to give advantage to any party. Instead, the bill was motivated by factionalism, perhaps a baser form of partisanship. The 2003 legislation was a consequence of the factional war within the Liberal Party of Canada at the time. Jean Chretien introduced it in an attempt to hurt Paul Martin’s enormous fund-raising machine.
As a result, the Canadian taxpayer were forced to pay for one political leader’s attempt to hurt the political chances of an opponent within his party. Since then, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin have come and gone, but the bill has caused significant collateral damage. It has forced Canadian taxpayers to be contributors to political campaigns long after the players involved were gone, and has made parties dependent on federal cash infusions. A Frontier backgrounder argued that the subsidy artificially prolonged the life of the Bloc Quebecois.
The greatest detriment has been that the subsidy helps to separate politicians from voters. By granting parties a steady revenue stream from the impersonal state, political parties no longer had to work at winning the favour of voters in between elections to keep themselves afloat. All they have to do is concentrate on getting voters’ attention at election time. The subsidy thus removed any incentive for parties continually to discuss new policies and ideas as a means to remain visible and in contact with the public.
By fostering a greater gap between parties and voters, the state subsidy has promoted a greater impoverishment of the political arena. That’s why the sooner politicians return to relying more consistently on voters for direct funding, the greater the contact between them will be, and a greater chance of healthier political activity.
Eventually saving over $100 million of public money between elections is not insignificant either.