Saturday, January 22, 2011

On counterweights

As promised, let's take a closer look at the reasons for defending per-vote funding to Canada's federal political parties, rather than seeking a deal to eliminate it as suggested in some corners.

To start with, it's worth a reminder as to the relative amount of money currently spent on per-vote funding compared to other types of political communication expenses. A sufficiently cynical federal government faces virtually no practical limits on what it can use to sell its own message to the public. And indeed, we currently enjoy a federal government which isn't interested in following rules about whether public money gets used for partisan advertising.

With the governing party able to control effectively as much funding as it thinks it can get away with to dictate the country's political agenda, I'd hope there isn't much doubt that there's some value in a stable and predictable counterweight. And I'd argue that the need is particularly important from a progressive standpoint, since it's relatively easy for an unchallenged government to tear down in a matter of months programs and services which take decades to build.

So what resources do opposition parties have at their disposal in seeking to counter a government's message which can be reinforced through tens of millions of public dollars?

Most obviously, there are MPs' offices which are well funded through the Parliament of Canada. But those offices face some significant restrictions in terms of both the activities permitted (with direct partisan action normally ruled out), and in the distribution of resources since MP funding mirrors the unfairness inherent in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

And then there's per-vote party funding. Unlike allocations limited to MPs, it doesn't replicate the distortions inherent in a first-past-the-post electoral system: indeed, it actually provides a financial stepping stone for broad-based developing parties, while avoiding the greater benefit to the Bloc or other regional parties found in seat-based allocations.

And direct funding of parties also allows for a far wider range of action than resources run through MP offices. Ideally, I'd want to see as much as possible used on maintaining a party apparatus capable of holding a government to account in the general public at all times. But it also allows for a greater degree of political deterrence, as an opposition party can count on some ability to counter a particularly extreme or excessive ad campaign originating with either a government or a governing party.

Now, as with MPs' offices and privately-raised funds, some parties will make better use of that capacity than others. And it may well be that it's worth tying consistent funding to ongoing activity, perhaps requiring that the subsidy be used to maintain party functions between elections rather than being stashed away as election funding. But the possibility that party-based funding might be better used doesn't serve as reason to get rid of it.

In sum, per-vote funding can be defended in principle as a political stabilizer which helps to prevent a ruthless governing party from drowning out opposing messages and doing a disproportionate amount of damage during its term in office. And we could hardly ask for a better example of the need for such a counterweight than the Harper Cons.

I'll leave the more general argument at that for now. But stay tuned for my take on why the NDP has every incentive to follow the above reasoning rather than looking to barter an end to per-vote funding in exchange for a lower contribution limit.

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