Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Not to be emulated

I agree with Brian Topp's view that we'd achieve a better political system by increasing the public funding available for political parties. But I'm surprised that Topp's chosen example is a country which seems to be moving toward some unfortunate outcomes that I fully expect to see copied in Canada before long:
Since Jan. 1, 2009, more than 40 new parties have been chartered in France. Why? Because French electoral law limits individual and corporate donations to €7,500 per party. To evade this and maximize their private fundraising, the Conservatives have been chartering new parties for each of their leading ministers and candidates. So, for example, the new "association de soutien a l'action de Benoist Apparu" has launched (the "association to support the work of Benoist Apparu" -- the minister for housing).
So why might there be a risk of similar abuses in Canada? Here's the Canada Elections Act provision governing individual contributions:
405. (1) No individual shall make contributions that exceed
(a) $1,000 in total in any calendar year to a particular registered party;
(a.1) $1,000 in total in any calendar year to the registered associations, nomination contestants and candidates of a particular registered party;
(b) $1,000 in total to a candidate for a particular election who is not the candidate of a registered party; and
(c) $1,000 in total to the leadership contestants in a particular leadership contest.
The amount of the limit is adjusted for inflation, but what's important is that the law only limits the amount of donations to a particular registered party. And likewise, campaign spending maximums apply to a "registered party" under section 423.

So in principle, if a party were seeking to double the effective contributions that could be made by big-money donors, it could simply set up a shadow party to receive the extra donations. And while there would be somewhat more work involved in trying to double the campaign spending limit (since the shadow party would have to run paper candidates in order to be able to spend extra money), it doesn't seem out of the question that a party with enough money in the bank might eventually do so. (In fact, third-party advertisers have already started to game the Canadian system.)

Which means that while France may serve as a positive example of public funding, it also seems to be headed toward obvious abuses of its party financing system which could be easily replicated in Canada. And the lesson from France's experience should include working to shut down the latter as well as praising the former.

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