Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Understanding a democratic bugaboo". Then re-published two weeks later under the title "Parties should be funded more fairly"
Canada is embroiled in a slanted debate about political finance, deliberately framed by one party to their own advantage. Hopefully voters will seek a deeper understanding, for shallow decisions will diminish democracy.
The bugaboo is Canada’s per-vote funding system, whereby each federal party receives $2 annually for each vote earned in the election. The Conservatives have their gun sights on this, hoping to kill it, effectively maiming other parties. That’s because the Conservative Party makes the most effective use of other public subsidies, ones they don’t mention or propose to kill.
Democracy costs money. Crafting effective policy, organizing, and communicating with voters isn’t free; without it, we can’t have good platforms or an informed vote. Money must come from somewhere, and where it does determines the bias of political parties. Funding based on vote share encourages parties to seek greater public support. Private donations leave parties beholden to those with cash to spare for political causes – currently fewer than 2% of Canadians.
But make no mistake, those “private donations” are also publicly-funded, through tax rebates starting at 75%. So while some parties cater to the political wishes of their wealthy donors, your tax dollars pick up the tab.
We also have election rebates: candidates can get 60% (and parties 50%) of their election spending repaid. Available only to candidates over 10% vote (or parties over 2%), this favours established parties with deeper pockets.
Of these three subsidies, which do you think matter the most to the Conservatives, and which is proportionately their least important? If you guessed they benefit the most from tax and election rebates and least from per-vote, you guessed right.
Per-vote funding makes your vote more powerful, because even if it doesn’t elect the MP of your choice, it supports the party that best represents you. By withholding your vote from a party, you withhold money, too.
Top pollster Nick Nanos believes if we eliminate this democratic funding, the result will be a two-party system, leaving us just centre-left and centre-right. Most Canadians believe there are more than two approaches; limiting choice is no way to fix our democratic deficit.
Do you prefer party funding and power determined by how much money they attract from rich private interests, or a fair system based on share of public support? Should those with the most money have the most influence, or should every voter count equally? Should parties be trying to attract more money, or more votes? Cancelling all political subsidies will just tighten wealth’s grip on the levers of power. If subsidies must go, it should be rebates to donors and candidates. Fund parties fully and fairly based on how much voter support they earn, and preserve democratic choice.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.