Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Money and Politics

To quote the magnificent TV series the West Wing, “Money and politics is like water on pavement... It finds all the cracks.” The notion of money and politics together unnerves me. My political inclinations tell me that as soon as you have to start asking for donations that will inevitably impact how you carry out politics. Even if you do not believe Members of Parliament, Congressmen, Senators or political parties are auctioned off like so much fine cattle, there’s still an element of ‘playing to the donors’ that will inevitably occur. I receive phone calls and letters from the NDP and ONDP trying to squeeze another donation out of me, especially when some news of the day gives them a new talking point, like the changes to Old Age Security, or the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election.

As repulsed as I was by money and politics and their disturbing mix earlier, I’ve sadly come to see it as a necessary evil. Having volunteered for a campaign, something has to pay to put gas in the campaign car, or pay for the phone line, or the office space. Something has to pay for ads, and research is not free.

I think some level of public support for political parties is a good idea. A vote subsidy makes a lot of sense. It means that political parties have to demonstrate a level of support to receive funding at all. $1.00 per vote, or thereabouts, is a good way of helping parties pay off the cost of elections. Coupled with the tax deduction, that is fair contribution by the public purse to the political process. Political parties that are unable to inspire a level of financing to remain sustainable probably do not have enough support to be a major contender. The Canadian political process is not stagnant, new parties rise and fall all the time at the federal and provincial levels. At the moment we needn’t worry about a calcifying system.

Who should be able to donate? Residents. Any person in Canada who is lives in Canada, citizen or otherwise, over the age of say, fourteen, should be able to donate. I’m not sure what sort of maximum cap should be put on donations. Right now you are limited to $1,200.00. My initial reaction is that that might be too low. Something like $2,500 might be better.

I think political donations should be limited to residents. That excludes businesses, NGOs, and unions. The spending power of these organizations far outweighs the spending power of individuals. Democracy is centred around individuals, not organizations. If ‘big money’ interests push out the ability of a normal citizen to exert influence, the system begins to break down. I am not comfortable with the commercials in Ontario used by unions. It is odd agreeing with Tom Flanagan, but there you have it.

Municipal politics is worse than provincial or federal. There are far fewer restrictions on political donations and poor oversight. In the St. Catharines Standard itwas recently reported that all but one candidate violated election spendingrules.  The problems facing Dean Del Mastro (CPC – Peterborough, ON) and the Conservative Party in recent elections have been troubling. Likewise, the stumbles by the NDP regarding union donations and the mistake in regards to the Broadbent Institute are problematic. I don’t think the two are equivalencies, but there you have it.

We need much stricter rules on political ads in Canada. Frankly, I think they should not be permissible outside of the writ period. The governing party has control of when the election is called, which makes it a real conflict of interest.

Money isn’t everything though. Bill James, the fellow behind the movie Moneyball, as played by Brad Pitt, proposed some ideas for politicians to succeed without alot of moneySo long as a candidate can make themselves stand out with meaningful policy differences and something that gets the attention of the electorate they can win. The major parties sometimes struggle to suit local needs. Parties are money and organization machines, any funding strategy need to take into account those who are outside the formal party process.

I realize that my proposals are not radically different from what Canada has today, but that is because I think Canada largely has the right system. I wrote this because of the news streaming out of the United States. The 2012 Presidential election is likely to be the first multi-billion dollar election. I cannot imagine how that is good for a nation’s democracy. The involvement of corporation and Super-PACs is deeply disturbing. How can a private citizen have any influence on national politics anymore? The President of the United States is the leader of the largest economy in the world; it is no surprise that the financial stakes are so high to buy it... win it. Perhaps more disturbing is the impact these funding rules will have on local races. Super-PACs could swoop in on a congressional race, drop a million dollars and obliterate a candidate.

Money and politics will never be separated. It’s best to make it as transparent and easy as possible. If we ban donations to $100 we will find secret trust funds going to politicians at the time of their retirement. There are diminishing returns on restrictions, and some benefits on a more liberal system. There should, to some extent, be a market for the market of ideas, but as with all markets, in my opinion, it should be regulated.

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