The opposition hurts itself by defending political subsidies

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/opinions/opinion
Published Thursday, Apr. 07, 2011.    Tom Kent, Special to Globe and Mail Update

Stephen Harper ended his first week of formal electioneering by providing Canadians with a clear reason – isolated, perhaps, but powerful – to endow him with a majority on May 2. He would stop the continuous flow of tax dollars to political parties. They would have less money for the attack ads, the spin doctoring, the photo ops and the other trivia with which they conduct their perpetual campaigns.

The reform is not, of course, a new idea. The Conservatives proposed it in the budget before the previous election. Its attraction to them is they’re better organized than the other parties to draw private donations.

In 2008, the other parties reacted with such fright and fury, proposing a coalition to unseat Mr. Harper, that he had to climb down. He has now promised to revert to the reform, provided the electorate this time gives him the majority to implement it.

The opposition should surely have been prepared for this. They were not. NDP Leader Jack Layton could only huff that the Tories would turn politics back into the hands of the rich. If that’s a real danger, a clever opposition would not try to fend it off by pleading for its own continued life support from taxpayers. It would simply demand from Mr. Harper a precise commitment not to sully his reform by such backtracking. Any attempt to dodge the challenge would cost Mr. Harper support he can’t afford to lose.

Defence of the current subsidy comes naturally to Liberal officialdom. It was the condition for consent in 2004 to the almost complete loss of the corporate financing on which the party was then dependent. Mr. Harper was much closer to public opinion now when he said, in effect, that one of the reasons for our political troubles is that the parties have too much money. There’s a fine irony to that, coming from the most ardent practitioner of the combative politics that money feeds. But the repentant sinner is always subject for rejoicing.

Official Liberal opinion, however, is stagnant. All it has offered, as a defence of the way things are, is that tax subsidization puts the parties on the same footing. Conservatives will be quick to say that the difference in footing is Liberal incompetence. Taxpayers should not be charged for that.

The opposition leadership needs to learn a simple principle of political controversy: There are no votes in defending what is plainly your self-interest. The effective response to Mr. Harper’s proposed reform isn’t to ask the voters to rein him in. It’s to run ahead of him.

There’s plenty of room for that. The partial reform Mr. Harper proposes will still leave the parties with plenty of money, in the wrong place. That’s their headquarters, where it helps to concentrate dictatorial power in the hands of party leaders. Reform legislation should put it where it belongs, in the constituency associations of a party’s members.

Those are the heart of a party as a democratic organization. They are where its members discuss the shared attitudes to public policy that bring them together. After direct subsidies end, members’ contributions will be the main source of political finance. But the money doesn’t come from their pockets alone. Contributions are fostered by the lavish tax incentives through which the federal treasury will continue to provide some $20-million a year to the parties. It should go, with the money that comes from the members’ own pockets, where it belongs – to constituency associations. They can then decide how much to hand on to party headquarters. Legislation of that requirement would do much to restore democratic vitality to our dysfunctional politics.

This is the most important financial reform to pursue. There are others that need discussion. The main consideration is plain. Mr. Harper’s intent is welcome. The opposition parties will only hurt themselves by crying out against it. They should be proposing to take political reform long steps further.

Tom Kent served as principal assistant to prime minister Lester Pearson.

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