Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Time to take the big money out of politics

Even as the last naive man in political journalism, I can't shed the idea that big donors get special treatment from parties.
Politics run on money. Advertising, charter aircraft, polling, strategists, staff - winning takes big bucks.
So when Teck Cominco sends six-figure cheques to the Liberals, or CUPE BC chips in $165,000 for the NDP campaign, I figure they have a better chance of getting access than I do. The parties know that irritating big donors threatens their chance of being elected.
The politicians insist it doesn't work that way. You could write a $5 million cheque to fund a campaign - which is legal in B.C. - but not get any extra attention from the politicians.
Even if that's true, the current system is still corrosive. A 2000 survey found almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe "people with money have a lot of influence over the government."
And donors believe the same thing.
The official line is that contributors are supporting the party that, if elected, would create an environment serving their broad interests. It's cast as legitimate participation in the democratic process, not an attempt to buy special attention.
I don't buy it. Neither do the donors.
Consider Paul Martin's Liberal leadership campaign. He had an absolute lock on the job; companies didn't have to contribute shareholders' money to ensure a Martin win.
But the leadership campaign pulled in $12 million, largely from corporate donors. The only reason to contribute was to be seen and remembered as a supporter once Martin was prime minister.
Consider also the B.C. Liberals' 2001 haul of $4.3 million from corporations. The party would have had a huge majority without that money; the companies, required to act in shareholders' interests, must have expected a return for those contributions.
Which leads to the new Elections B.C. report on political contributions heading into the last election.
The Liberals were given $9.5 million for the campaign. About 70 per cent was from businesses, the rest from individuals. Less than one-third of their funds came from actual voters.
The NDP received about $5.4 million, with about 40 per cent from unions. The Green party took in $106,000. For every $50 the NDP could spend, the Greens could spend $1.
If money affects the outcome, and people and organizations donate out of self-interest, then our elections are for sale. If businesses or unions see the chance to spend money to help elect a sympathetic - or indebted - government, they will.
And the rest of us will be on the outside.
There is a way to end this.
Manitoba and Quebec have banned union and corporate donations. Ontario allows them, but limits all donations - business, union or individual - to $15,500 per year (and an extra $15,500 for an election campaign).
The federal government - with legislation passed by the Liberals and strengthened by the Conservatives - has banned corporate and union donations and limited individual donations to $1,000. "This act will put an end to the influence of big money on federal political parties,'' Harper said in introducing his bill.
Parties still need money to run campaigns. When corporate and business donations were banned federally, public funding for parties, based on the number of votes received in the last election, was introduced to supplement individual donations.
Getting that formula right is tricky. Forcing parties to make do with less cash would be useful, as volunteers and grassroots efforts would be more important.
The Greens and NDP in B.C. both pledge to ban corporate and union donations and limit individual donations.
Gordon Campbell wants to stick with unlimited donations. People can judge if a party is favouring donors and vote them out in four years, he argues.
But that's not true. Voters can't really examine hundreds of pages of donations, recognize names or monitor all government decisions.
In B.C., parties - and democracy - are effectively for sale.
Footnote: Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld called for a review of political finance rules in his report on the 2005 election. B.C. was a leader when the current regulations were introduced in 1995, but is now lagging other provinces.

1 comment:

seth said...

Third world countries call it for what it is baksheesh.

Paul has forgotten to mention the most insidious form of "legal" corruption - lucrative board of director appointments for party hacks and retiring politicians, and generous speaking fees for compliant journalists and of course party hacks and retiring politicians.

The Clintons were almost bankrupt after his presidency. Now they worth hundreds of millions. How'd that happen? Anybody check on how former restaurant waiter, flight instructor, and worst finance minister in BC history is now doing?