Public money is already in politics and is better than the alternative: experts

By The Canadian Press
September 26, 2017 - 7:03am

VANCOUVER — The amount of public money parties would receive under British Columbia’s new campaign finance rules before the next provincial election is virtually identical to the amount political donors received in tax benefits between the last two elections, an analysis of the two systems shows.

The province’s new NDP government is experiencing a backlash after flip-flopping on its campaign promise not to use public money to fund political parties, but an analysis by The Canadian Press shows the payout under the proposed system for a per-vote subsidy mirrors what is already happening.

Based on the results of May’s election, the three major political parties would receive $16.36 million in subsidies before the next election scheduled for 2021 under the new system.

The analysis of Elections BC data reveals the province would have paid out nearly that same amount — $16.31 million — in tax benefits to subsidize contributions made to political parties from donors, which include individuals, corporations and trade unions.

The subsidies proposed by the NDP have been described by Premier John Horgan as a transitional measure and would expire after five years.

The New Democrats also propose reimbursing parties and candidates up to 50 per cent of their election expenses if they receive at least 10 per cent of the vote, which amounts to about $11 million based on last May’s election.

B.C. and Alberta are the only two provinces without a system that partially reimburses individual candidates for their expenses.

Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan also offer partial reimbursement to political parties.

Horgan rejected public funding for parties before the last election, saying any such proposal would first go to Elections BC and an independent committee for review.

Experts say while existing subsidies may be less obvious, a lot of public money already goes into political financing either through public finding or tax rebates.

But subsidizing parties on a per-vote basis tends to attract attention from voters because it is more visible, said Robert MacDermid, a campaign finance expert at York University in Toronto.

“I think, as citizens, we would rather have money come out of the pool of taxpayers than come out of the pool of wealthy individuals or unions that have very specific interests to push. We should see that as a benefit,” he said.

In B.C., donors are eligible to claim 75 per cent on the first $100 donated, 50 per cent on any amount between $100 and $550, and 33.3 per cent for donations between $550 and $1,150. Benefits are capped at $500, which means contributions above $1,150 earn no additional tax benefit.

Those rules will not change with the passage of the new campaign finance bill.

The amount in tax benefits was calculated using campaign contribution data. Numbers provided by B.C.’s Finance Ministry confirm the general amounts.

A $16 million contribution planned for the NDP, Liberals and Greens amounts to 0.03 per cent of the province’s $51.9 billion budget.

“This is a tiny, tiny per cent, and it’s for ensuring that politicians rely less on the wealthy and so adopt the ideas of the wealthy. That is really the worry in campaign finance, translating the economic power that the wealthy have in the market into politics,” MacDermid said.

“This is a very, very small price for people to pay to guard against that.”

Max Cameron, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, said more attention should be focused on the cost of subsidizing political parties than the idea of subsidies in the first place.

“I think it’s really critical that we focus not so much on, should the public be funding parties? Of course the public should be funding parties. It is already funding parties,” Cameron said.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. The alternative to that is pay-for-play, it’s selling access to the highest bidder.”

But Andrew Wilkinson, a member of the legislature who is running for the Liberal party leadership, said public subsidies deprive voters of choice.

“Taxpayer subsidies to parties are designed to maintain the status quo and to take money from taxpayers and support parties that they may have no interest in supporting,” he said. “We think that’s just plain wrong.”

Modest tax credits for political donations are appropriate because they encourage small-scale participation, Wilkinson said, adding the NDP’s approach also freezes financial support for parties based on voter preferences that may be four years out of date.

Attorney General David Eby, who is responsible for campaign finance reform, did not respond to a request for comment.

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

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