Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Parties should earn support at the doorstep

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Brian Pallister is right when he objects to the legislation which permits taxpayers' money to be used to finance political parties. With respect, Pallister is wrong to turn down his party's share of the entitlement, while the NDP and other parties take their share. Pallister is cutting off his nose to spite his face.

When the other parties dip their hands into the trough, and the Conservatives do not, the result is conservative-thinking people are financially supporting the NDP, without similar and equivalent requirements on NDP supporters.

Sure, Mr. Pallister is right that it is contrary to freedom of conscience to require a taxpayer of conservative philosophy to contribute money to the NDP.

But thus far he has lost that argument, and the legislation is in place. He has every right to play by the rules. He can undertake to change the rules when he wins the election. Their is no hypocrisy or inconsistency in following the rules as long as they exist.

When I was active in politics, I objected to the legislation which provided for public moneys to be used to help finance election campaigns. I was always asked by the media if I would take the money if we qualified under the rules. I said of course I would, otherwise my supporters would be subsidizing other political parties while not imposing the same responsibility on our opponents.

The use of public moneys to finance political parties is wrong. It is contrary to freedom of conscience to require citizens to finance political parties with which they are in fundamental disagreement. In the U.S., the Supreme Court held it was contrary to the constitution to use taxpayers money to finance political parties.

In Canada, the Supreme Court declined to decide the issue in a case it heard in the 1980s. The Manitoba case, in which I was involved, reached the Supreme Court after a judge on the Manitoba Court of Appeal, Mr. Justice Charles Huband, in a minority opinion, held the legislation offended the Charter of Rights as being contrary to freedom of conscience. There was a full argument at the Supreme Court, participated in by representatives of the federal government and at least four provinces that had similar legislation. Despite this, and despite the fact the issue had never been raised in lower courts, the Supreme Court ruled the case could not be decided because it lacked a factual foundation.

The fact the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal in the previous case would indicate the question is of national importance and would be considered by the court if a case came before them. Pallister should consider whether to take that route.

But it is more likely the political avenue will be followed. Pallister is committed to repeal the legislation if his party is elected. Federally, the Harper government is weaning parties off the per-vote subsidy, scheduled to disappear entirely in 2015, an election year.

The extent to which political parties are now dependant on this source of funds was demonstrated when the previous Harper minority government announced its intention of ending public financing of political parties. The NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois entered into a formal alignment designed to defeat the government and replace it with a coalition that would have witnessed the anomalous situation of a Canadian government with a participating separatist party. The NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc found something upon which they could agree. They submerged all differences to coalesce on sustaining themselves with public largess.

Those in favour of using taxpayers money to finance political parties argue money should not be a factor in deciding elections and public financing provides a level playing field. The argument is fallacious and simplistic. Their are countless factors besides money that determine election results. I remember Tommy Douglas successfully arguing the abundance of money available to the parties he was fighting was itself good reason not to support them.

To suggest we did not have a working democracy in this country before public financing of political parties is outrageous. The CCF in Saskatchewan and the NDP in Manitoba, and then in B.C., were elected without public funding. Indeed, it is arguable public funding has impaired democracy rather than enhanced it. Before public funding, elections were fought on the basis of conflicting ideas. With public funding, and the resulting Madison Avenue-type campaigns, choosing governments is more like deciding between competing detergents.

 

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2014 A9

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