Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hey, Must Be the Money

So, a lot has happened. Two Premiers down, a Federal Finance Minister out, and numerous other political developments. As interesting as some of those would be to talk about, it's also a tad old news at this point. Besides, there's not much that hasn't been said and that I feel I need to contribute to that conversation.

Where I do want to contribute, so a degree, is to talk about the Fair Elections Act. The bill that no one seems to like, but that we're likely going to have to live with. I don't think a single professional, by which I mean an academic not hired by the government, has spoken in favour of this bill. In fact, it has gained national and even some international scorn over the potential it has for vote suppressing.

As a contributor to the Canadian Politics sub-reddit pointed out in a brilliantly simple argument, and I'm paraphrasing: "The Fair Elections Act wants to remove vouching, a process which allowed legal voters to legally cast their ballots. No evidence has come forward of voting fraud through vouching, so this bill wants to prevent previously legal electors from being able to vote."

Despite Conservatives coming forward, like Brad Butt or Laurie Hawn, to talk about the misuse of voter ID cards that they had personally witnessed. (Butt, for the record, recanted his tale and found protection in his caucus from being found in contempt of Parliament for lying in the house; while Hawn has had his claim refuted by former Elections Canada Chief Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who notes that voter cards were not able to be used as a substitution for ID in the 2006 election).

One can't help but draw some parallels to one of the more recent tactics used by the Conservatives against Thomas Mulcair. Conservatives, Paul Calandra in particular, were fond of asking why it took Mulcair years to come forward about an attempted bribe he was offered while he was a MNA; since Mulcair only provided his account once the Charbonneau Commission had started.

Well, chalk this one up to the pot and the kettle. Since now, Conservatives are doing the exact same thing. If they saw voter fraud, they didn't report it. They can hem and haw, as Hawn has done about maybe doing it differently and reporting the fellow back when he had the chance, but it's more or less the same thing. At the very least, it should put an end to the attack against Mulcair lest the NDP respond with questions about Conservatives not reporting voter fraud.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about with this post. The universal consensus, unless you're a Conservative caucus member, is that this bill is just bad policy. It doesn't give Elections Canada teeth, and in effect does more to neuter the organization instead. Both Kingsley and current EC Chief Marc Mayrand have called for more provisions to ensure that the Fair Elections Act lives up to its name.

Yet there is one solution that would ultimately ensure that Fair Elections were exactly that: 100% public funded elections.

Democracy is a nice idea in theory, a sentiment that is usually applied to communism, but in practice it doesn't always work. This is especially true when you consider the big money that goes into politics.

Take, for example, the latest statistic that shows a little over half of US Congresspeople are millionaires. To get elected, you need money. To get money, you have two options:

First, you can stump like hell and make a mountain out of  mole hill; by which I mean, you have a massive donor base that contributes small amounts.

Second, you can get support at massive levels from fewer donors. Canada's laws are a bit better than America's on this front, at least in restricting who can and cannot donate to a party, but they aren't perfect.

Let's be perfectly honest. Every party, EVERY PARTY, skirts the rules as best they can when it comes to election financing. After all, there's tons of ways to do it. That plane I used for the campaign? That was a gift, not an expense. That donation of the maximum allowed amount from the wealthy couple, who only has one working spouse? Well, it may be the one spouse's money, but it's listed under both their names...and don't look too closely at our adult children's donations either.

And those are just the outrageous examples.

I guarantee that every party has outdone themselves in small funds fundraising. It's not often you go to a constituency meeting, a nomination meeting, or any kind of party event where the old kitty isn't passed around and you're free to throw in $10 or $20. Even if you've already contributed the maximum amount allowed under Canadian law, these smaller donations are not well tracked (if tracked at all) which allows anyone to continue to contribute in small amounts and go unnoticed.

The basic fact to take away from this is: our election financing rules are broken, and they will remain broken as long as private money is allowed to enter into the political system.

A US Congressman fell into hot water when he suggested that a millionaire should be entitled to 'a million votes' based on their wealth; and while we all balked at the suggestion, the truth is our system is almost at that point already. While they may not physically get a million votes, they do get things that the rest of us electors do not...Just look to the Senate if you want to see what happens to people who either raise or donate a lot of money to their party.

Democracy cannot work when money plays a more important role than the actual voice of the people. That is not a democracy, it is an oligarchy.

Which is why if we ever want a fair election, we must support 100% public funded elections.

There is a question as to whether or not we should even allow parties to raise money at all; though, I do realize that parties do rely on paid employees as well as volunteers. It's a tricky balance, but not impossible to achieve. So, while I'm not saying we should completely stop parties from fundraising, we should explore avenues to restrict what they can use raised funds for. Office and staff expenses, yes. Running a multi-million dollar ad campaign, no.

Public funded elections, I think, would also help us end a bit of the negativity we've seen develop in Canadian politics since 2004.

Imagine that each party is only given X amount of dollars for the entire campaign (or perhaps each riding association is given X amount, rather than any grand schemes allowed by the federal party mechanisms). With a set budget that can't be replenished, you would weigh your options pretty carefully on what you spend money on.

Do we take out a negative ad? Or do we run that ad that highlights our policies?

It restricts the ability of parties to spend frivolously, which I would think would stop negative ads (at least to a degree) because parties need to focus more on their message. Granted, I imagine at least one camp would run negative ads in spite of limited resources, but I think overtime the system would reach a point where parties would place more value on ensuring their policies and ideas were heard over their vitriol.

Granted, there are a lot of questions to be answered.

How do we determine which parties receive funding? Do we do this at a complete payout to the federal party and allow them to trickle money down, or do we directly fund riding associations of eligible parties?

That is a topic for another day, and quite frankly perhaps a better mind than my own. But the common truth of this remains clear: Privately funded elections do not empower citizens. If anything, they actually decrease the power we hold as electors. All parties, regardless of their political stripes, bend the rules when it comes to fundraising and financing. After all, if one party is doing it, then the others have to follow suit lest they fall behind.

Open single-sourced funding is the only way to ensure Canada actually has fair elections and ensure that it's the will of the people that is followed before and after an election, not the will of the almighty dollar.

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