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Per vote subsidies? We don’t need no stinkin’ per vote subsidies

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It was no surprise that Prime Minister Stephen Harper revived the idea of ending the per vote subsidy available to registered political parties. Harper tried in 2008 to do away with this form of electoral financing, but a coalition of opposition parties threatened to bring down the Tory government on a vote of non-confidence, and the move was taken off the table. This week, Harper put it back on the table. "Taxpayers shouldn't have to support political parties that they don't support. I think that's people's choice," Harper said in New Brunswick.

At first blush, this appears to be another move tailored to appeal to core Conservatives. Especially those who long for smaller government and who at heart dislike, even resent the work of politics and political parties. For a party that still clings to its populist leanings, this is a beauty of a campaign plank. Harper can claim it is an act of fiscal prudence that also happens to shrink the Liberals, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Greens war chests. And, Harper does this knowing that this proposal makes the other parties look greedy and lazy. Win-win-win.

However, it’s hard to genuinely see this as a boost to democracy. The $2 per-vote subsidies were introduced by the Liberals as a way of softening the blow from the elimination of corporate and union donations. It’s not a stretch to say as well that rewarding any party that can run a legitimate campaign is a good way of ensuring the federal political market remains competitive. Elections are a challenge that can be solved by throwing money at them. Providing funding to smaller parties through this mechanism ensures that these parties are viable, and that’s an important element in keeping the larger parties on their toes. And smaller parties must earn at least two per cent of the total votes cast to quality.

The irony in Harper’s rhetoric of course is that the Tories collect more in per vote subsidies than any other party. Having won two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives garnered more votes than any other single party. So it’s not surprising that they would collect the most in per vote subsidies. The more important fact is that this is the least lucrative of the three federal subsidies.

The Globe and Mail published a great graphic that shows how much each party gets from the per-vote subsidy and how much they get from electoral expense rebates and from tax credits to donors. The Tories collected $42.3 million in total taxpayer support ($10.4 million from per-vote subsidies), or roughly 50 per cent more than the Liberals ($28.1 million total; 7.2 million in per-vote subsides). If you take away the per-vote subsidy, the Tories still collect 50 per cent more in financial support from taxpayers than the next closest party. Their total ($31.9 million) is almost equal to taxpayer subsidies paid to the Liberals and NDP combined ($33.3 million).

The sad fact about this proposal is that it is virtually meaningless in the grand scheme of things. It’s not much of a cost savings, it doesn’t end the practice of taxpayer support for political parties, and it may not even serve the more cynical goal of crippling opposition parties. If anything, it will likely motivate the Liberals in particular to be more ruthless in their fundraising. This is what happened in Manitoba when the NDP government ended corporate and union donations in 2000. The Progressive Conservatives did suffer early on, particularly in the 2003 provincial election. But now, the Tories know how to raise money and compete equally with the NDP in total election spending. It has, in some ways, made the PC’s a stronger party.

So, let’s not confuse this proposal with the serious business of the election.

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