Buying Back Our Political Parties

Article excerpt

I keep a file of newspaper clippings on campaign and party finance scandals to which I add almost every week. Last week the additions were about French President Jacques Chirac's elaborate system of contract kickbacks and payoffs from Paris real-estate developers, alleged to have been made while he was the mayor of Paris. Prior to that, the clippings are about "Kohlgate," long-serving Chancellor Helmur Kohl and his German Christian Democratic Union's secret slush-funds kept in Swiss bank accounts to be used whenever the parry's reign was threatened. Last week and over the weekend I added clippings about the Clintons' Whitehouse sleepovers for major contributors to party and candidate coffers. I could have added articles containing Al Gore's "admissions" of past mistakes in fundraising, or the articles about the obscene amounts of money that the Bush campaign is raising and spending. I should also have added the fact that at least two presidential candidates, John McCain's failed nomination bid and Ralph Nade r's campaign, have both featured campaign-finance reform as a central plank. If mainstream American politicians are now talking about these issues, things they would really rather not discuss in public, it can only be because the American public is concerned.

On this issue, Canadians have no reason to be smug. The last three premiers of British Columbia have resigned because of illegal fundraising schemes or accepting personal favours. The Saskatchewan Conservative Parry disappeared in shame at the way some now-jailed or fined members of the Grant Devine government diverted public funds to private and parry uses. It was just ten years ago that Liberal fundraiser Patti Starr's activities contributed to the defeat of the David Peterson Liberal government in Ontario. And Stevie Cameron's On the Take detailed the corruption-filled Mulroney years in Ottawa. Political-finance scandals are in our blood too: the Pacific Scandal, the railway bribing parry and politician, brought down John A. MacDonald's Government just six years into nationhood.

The campaign finance "arms race"

For the most part, political parties will tell you that scandals are a thing of the past and current political-finance regimes tightly control the influence of money in today's politics. But since the patties, or often just the governing parry (as in Ontario where the ruling Tories rewrote the election laws over the objections of the opposing parties), get to write the rules, we shouldn't think of them as impartial.

The dynamic that causes these scandals, the hope for access and preferment in return for contributions, remains in place and is, if anything, worsened by the complimentary pressure that drives the cost of election campaigns upward and turns political parties into fundraising organizations. In federal politics and in many provinces and municipalities there is a kind of campaign-finance "arms race" that is driving some parties into near bankruptcy and electoral uncompetitiveness. Recent reports have the federal Conservative Party $9 million in debt but having obtained a bank loan for another $5 to $10 million to fight the upcoming election. Joe Clark was talking about a cross-Canada bus campaign because the party can't afford the cost of a chartered plane. In Ontario, the Mike Harris Tories raised over $50 million between 1995 and 1999 while in the same the period the opposition Liberals raised just $15 million and the NDP just over $14 million. This allowed the Tories to outspent the others during the electio n year of 1999 by margins of two and three to one.

Driven upward by the costs of television advertising and the campaign techniques of image creation and manipulation, every federal election since 1979 has seen campaign costs go up.

Sometimes the increasing costs are hidden by changes to election laws. The 1999 Tory changes to Ontario laws raised both the spending limits and at the same time declared costs for travel and polling and research to be outside the campaign-expenditure cap. …