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January 27, 2010

Hebert: Cash, Votes, and the Rise of Toxic Politics

Chantal Hebert, Toronto Star, January 27, 2010

There is a French expression that best captures the central role of money in fuelling conflict. It describes it as “le nerf de la guerre” or, loosely translated, the sinew of war.

According to a just-published University of Calgary study, the public dollars that have flown to the main federal parties since the introduction of a new political financing system six years ago may have served exactly that purpose, tilting an already adversarial dynamic toward even more conflict.

The study’s findings suggest that an overly generous subsidy rather than a succession of minority governments may account for the ever-increasing partisanship that has rendered the atmosphere of the federal arena so toxic.

Co-authored by Tom Flanagan, who recently played an influential role in Stephen Harper’s entourage, the study is already a source of backroom chatter because it concludes that the Prime Minister should rethink his approach to electoral reform.

It was a Conservative attempt to do away with the per-vote-subsidy that led to the 2008 parliamentary crisis.

Rather than pursue its elimination in the next campaign, Flanagan and co-author David Coletto recommend that future initiatives to reform the system be based on an all-party consensus.

While they stop short of advocating the maintenance of the controversial $1.95-per-vote allowance, they warn that its elimination could have a crippling impact on all the federal parties, including the Conservatives.

They also conclude that none of the available alternatives would offer more than very partial relief for the financial hit of the elimination of the per-vote subsidy.

Some Conservatives will be tempted to dismiss those findings as unwelcome friendly fire but the study does offer party strategists fair warning about the unintended consequences of tinkering with the political financing regime.

For instance, Jean Chrétien’s efforts to ease his own party’s transition from corporate donations to individual contributions with a generous federal allowance ended up helping Harper assemble – in less than a decade – a formidable political machine.

Originally designed to make up for the loss of corporate and union donations, the new regime was expected to be revenue neutral. Instead, it resulted in a big injection of additional recurring money into the federal party system.

Along with the Bloc Québécois, the Conservatives were big winners of the Chrétien reform. From 2004 to 2007, the party received quarterly allowances totalling $35 million or double the combined amount raised by the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives from corporate and other big donors over the last four years of the previous regime.

That money did not land in a vacuum.

Over the past few years, many have blamed the deteriorating federal climate on successive minority governments. A short time span between elections can make it harder for policy-makers to rise above their partisan instincts.

But Ontario went through recurring cycles of minority rule in the late ’70s and ’80s without the interaction between the parties at Queen’s Park ever sinking to the depths of acrimony that have become the new normal in Ottawa.

The study points out that before the new regime, parties could rarely afford to maintain full-time war rooms to spin on their behalf or to launch attacks ads on each other between election campaigns. It is hard to see the advent of a permanent federal air war at taxpayers’ expense as a positive development.

Flanagan and Coletto’s findings may not shore up the Conservative arguments for getting rid of the per-vote subsidy but they do lay the foundation of a compelling case to scale that subsidy down.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Good Decisions Require Good Data.