Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Real debate' was not part of party allowance report

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At the risk of sounding defensive, I am writing to respond to the criticism that the allowance program for political parties presented in my recent report is too expensive.

I would make three brief points and encourage readers to consult the report where a more detailed analysis of how the potential total of $600,000 in allowance spending was determined.

First, as I note in the report, determining what the provincial government can afford to spend on allowances must ultimately be left to responsible ministers in cabinet who are answerable to the legislature and the public for that decision.

I reiterate a key point in my report that, in a representative democracy, political parties play a pivotal role and they need money and other resources to perform effectively.

The real debate is over how best to combine public and private funding in ways that engage citizens in the political process while avoiding undue influence by wealthy donors. It was not part of my mandate to comment on the other public and private revenues available to parties or whether their total incomes were adequate to the important functions they perform within the political system.

These are broader philosophical questions that can only be resolved through legislative and public debates.

Second, unlike the previous allowance program, which was terminated in January 2012, the new program is more predictable in terms of total spending. Under the old program there was an annual ceiling ($250,000) on the amount that any party could receive. The potential total allowance spending under the former program, however, was also affected by voter turnout, the number of registered parties that exist and the eligible administrative expenses of each party as approved by Elections Manitoba.

If the voter turnout had been higher in the 2007 election (it was only 56.8 per cent), if the two largest parties had qualified for a full payment (based on eligible administrative expenses each year), and if those two parties had accepted the allowance payments, the cost to the public treasury would have come close to, and may even have exceeded, the $600,000 annual ceiling proposed for the new program.

Thirdly, unlike the former program, the new program is targeted to core administrative and compliance expenses rather than to support campaign-type activities.

Compliance costs arise from reporting obligations imposed by Manitoba's election laws and they represent a large portion of annual administrative spending. To receive their allowance payment, parties will have to report to Elections Manitoba their expenses based on prescribed categories of administrative-compliance activities. Furthermore, the new legislation, which created the commissioner position, prohibits the use of allowance money for advertising and polling and the parties must attest in their annual financial statements that no allowance money has been used for those purposes.

Finally, my report recommended consideration of a more comprehensive ban on the potential use of allowance money for partisan, campaign purposes. Of course, in a general sense, allowances add to the pool of money available to parties.

I was not expected, however, to address that question.

There is no perfect system for financing political parties. I was not authorized to decide whether or not there should be party allowances or to examine other components of Manitoba's party financing laws. I expected and received criticism for the model of a new party allowance program I presented. I encourage interested readers to consult the report to learn how I used a set of principles to design an allowance program that was sound, fair, affordable, accountable and as acceptable as possible given the controversial nature of the program.

Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies, St. John's College, University of Manitoba. His report is available at www.allowancecommissionermb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2013 A7

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