(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner; this is the original, without the Examiner's minor edits).
In the past, Canada had “Ministers without Portfolio,” but today I again describe a distressing new trend, “Ministers Against Portfolio,” whose efforts oppose what the ministry is supposed to achieve.
This week: Minister of Democratic Renewal, created under Prime Minister Paul Martin to address what the 1990s deficit-killer coined our “democratic deficit”. Certainly such deficit exists; the number of people who don’t even vote outnumber those who voted for our governing party. Add the fact that only 30,000 voters elect each Bloc MP, but almost a million Green Party voters get none, and you can see that we indeed have a real democratic deficit.
Such is to be expected with an obsolete system, designed over 5 centuries ago, not changed much since. Would you trust 19th-century medicine to heal you? Would transportation options of the 18th century get you where you need to go on time? Would a pre-industrial communications system keep you in touch? Of course not. So why rely on such an out-of-date approach to elections?
The Minister for Democratic Renewal certainly has his work cut out for him. What, then has he been up to? Harper’s first appointment, Peter Van Loan, passed the Fixed Elections Act, a great idea I wholeheartedly support. Too bad Harper decided to ignore his own law, rendering the Act meaningless.
Next Van Loan attacked voter fraud with strict new photo ID and address standards. Since voter fraud was never really a problem, this didn’t do much good, but it did see many thousands of bona fide voters turned away from the polls. (The most affected? Students and the homeless, who don’t normally vote Conservative.) His most trumpeted measure was adding a couple of extra advance polling days. Of course, when Harper broke the fixed election date in 2008 this bill died on the order paper. So Van Loan’s successor, Steven Fletcher, re-introduced it last summer, only to see it die again under prorogation. Apparently even this minor tweak can’t make it past Harper’s House games.
Fletcher has opined against the per-vote political funding. It is this which marks him as the Minister Against Democracy. In all their wailing about taxpayer money subsidizing political parties, the Conservatives ignore two of the Big Three. Each party gets 50% of their election spending back, which favours established parties able to borrow millions of dollars. Local candidates exceeding 10% of the vote likewise get a 60% rebate – again favouring old-line parties. But the privately-donated money Fletcher prefers over per-vote funding is also taxpayer-subsidized, although the Minister never mentions that. Up to 75% of each “private” political contribution is publicly refunded through income tax credits. This favours those with higher incomes who can afford to give, and pay enough tax to use the credit Advantage: parties of the rich elite.
Of these three public subsidies, the fairest is per-vote, since you don’t have to be rich to support your party, and the party needn’t be long-established to benefit. Each party gets what exactly voters give them. So naturally, this is the funding the Minister Against Democracy wants to kill. Yet not a word about restricting how much MPs can spend from the public purse promoting themselves and their own party. (Three of the top 10 spenders? Helena Geurgis, Peter Van Loan, Patrick Brown).
Next week: Minister Against Justice.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.