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Public funding of political parties on U of M prof's plate

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The Selinger government is taking a stab at making taxpayer subsidization of political parties more palatable.

On Friday, it tossed the political hot potato to University of Manitoba political scientist William Neville, who has 90 days to come up with a more acceptable mechanism for supporting political parties.

At stake for the governing NDP is the spectre of another showdown with its rank and file.

Four years ago, the NDP government, then under Gary Doer, created a taxpayer subsidy to help political parties cope with the financial hit from an earlier ban on corporate and union donations.

Each registered party was allowed to apply annually for a government payment of $1.25 for each vote it received in the last general election, to a maximum of $250,000.

However, the Tories didn't play ball. They termed the new subsidy a "vote tax" and refused to apply for their share. The NDP, placed in an awkward political position, followed suit.

As a result, the NDP has passed up $1 million in taxpayer funding over the past four years while the Conservatives have refused roughly $800,000.

Meanwhile, the smaller parties, with much smaller budgets, have accepted the annual subsidy. The Liberals have pocketed $253,427 over the last four years, the Green party has collected $29,529 and the Communist party $2,400. The annual minimum subsidy is $600 a year.

Last spring, the government passed legislation permitting hiring an independent allowance commissioner to develop a new public financing process for political parties. According to the legislation, the commissioner, Neville, may consider party administration and operating costs in formulating a subsidy plan. But polling and advertising costs are to be excluded from the formula. The idea is to help parties defray costs incurred in complying with their legal obligations.

On Friday, Neville said he hopes to receive co-operation from all political parties as he carries out his deliberations. "I don't know that this will be less controversial than perhaps the other (funding) arrangement was, but I'm proceeding on the assumption that it is," he said.

Government house leader Jennifer Howard said with Neville's appointment, the province was moving to a more "fair, transparent and non-partisan process" in funding registered political parties.

At their June convention, provincial NDP members expressed anger that the party executive had refused to accept the existing subsidy after being directed to do so by the membership a year earlier. The party's president resigned in protest when the executive, which included several NDP MLAs, refused to carry out the convention's wishes.

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister and Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard were not available for comment Friday on Neville's appointment.

Colin Craig, a spokesman for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, expressed frustration that the government was pushing ahead with a new party funding mechanism when the province's debt is increasing by $47 a second.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 A14

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