Out­comes dif­fer on po­lit­i­cal loot

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT -

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.

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