Outcomes differ on political loot
However much they may wish to avoid it, Canadians have a hard time defining what’s unique about their country without falling into contrasts with their southern neighbour. These days it’s especially easy to find points of comparison: health care, climate policy, and most recently political financing.
In a hotly controversial 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States has erased the legislative limits on corporate and union donations to political campaigns at all levels of the American system. Seen as a Republican victory, the decision has drawn unusually blunt denunciation from a sitting president, Barack Obama, who even brought it up last week in his State of the Union speech.
Obama has called the decision “devastating,” adding that it “strikes at our democracy itself.”
Canadians, who see American politics mostly through U.S. TV channels beamed into livingrooms by cable, probably need little convincing that money lies at the root of much of the U.S. political malaise. It’s a paralysis induced by fierce rivalry among competing interests with oodles of cash to throw into any campaign, usually as negative attacks against some proposal or individual.
The high court decision appears to release any restraint on that, with the possible exception of legislation requiring disclosure of donors behind sponsored campaigns.
Pundits debate the significance of the decision, with some arguing that it will mean little more than a corporate reordering of political donations, since U.S. business is already maxed out by incessant demands for money. The danger, of course, is that the decision will launch a new bidding war instead.
Meanwhile, political financing continues to percolate in the background of federal politics in Canada too. Although the opposition parties denied it was the trigger, Prime Minister Stephen Harper provoked a parliamentary crisis at the end of 2008 by threatening to kill the $1.95 per vote annual subsidy to the main political parties.
The threat of a coalition government and the subsequent prorogation of Parliament led the Conservative administration to drop the subsidy issue for the time being. But it hasn’t gone away. Most recently, University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan co-authored a paper saying the political subsidy system brought in six years ago by a Liberal government and tweaked by Harper has made politics more adversarial.
Lucrative public financing, in compensation for the elimination of corporate and union donations and other severe restrictions on fundraising, has enabled the federal parties to run full-time war rooms, resulting in a sort of permanent election campaign, Flanagan suggests. He’d like to see reforms such as a scaling back of subsidies, but only in consultation among all parties.
How genteel this all seems in contrast to the bareknuckle, take-no-prisoners style of American politics today. In Canada, limits to political financing are largely accepted, by the courts as well as the public, as necessary and beneficial to a healthy democracy. What Canadian political discourse may lack in vigour is sometimes made up in common sense. Money and free speech are not the same thing, and this truth we hold to be self-evident.