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Fletcher assigned to push funding cut for parties

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OTTAWA -- When Prime Minister Stephen Harper's attempt to cut off political party subsidies last year led to a very close brush with defeat, one might have thought the vote-tax debate would be dead and buried.

Think again.

It appears Manitoba cabinet minister Steven Fletcher has been tasked with promoting the idea all over again.

Fletcher -- the minister of state for democratic reform -- has been talking about gearing up to take on the vote tax again. He has indicated it is something his government still plans to pursue.

"We believe that political parties should support themselves with people who voluntarily donate to whichever party they wish to support," said Fletcher.

Last November, you might remember, Conservative plans to cut off the per-vote subsidy which parties get led to a near meltdown of Parliament. The opposition parties accused the government of trying to use the threat of a recession to kill off its opponents by bankrupting them. Then the Liberals, NDP and Bloc banded together to form a coalition and were prepared to vote down the government and take over.

Only Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean's decision to grant Harper's request to suspend Parliament kept the Conservatives from facing a confidence vote they surely would have lost.

So the fact Fletcher is bringing it up again has the tongues a-wagging.

There is likely one big difference, however.

A year ago, the Liberal Party was absolutely reliant on the money from that allowance. The Liberals raised a little over $5.8 million in direct contributions but received $8.7 million in the per vote subsidy.

The Conservatives, in comparison, raised $21 million in donations and $10.4 million came from the vote tax. Losing $10 million would hurt but they would still have had four times as much money as their nearest opponent.

But with a new leader, a new fundraising plan and at least the appearance so far of a wider appeal with voters, the Liberals' financial fortunes have improved. In the first two quarters of this year the Liberals already surpassed their 2008 fundraising totals, registering $5.9 million in donations with Elections Canada.

Added to that, with the Liberals' 2008 elections showing so dismal, they are bringing in far less in the per-vote subsidy because they got 800,000 fewer votes. In 2009, they will raise $7.2 million in the vote tax subsidy. If they raise another $4 million in the third and fourth quarters, they will no longer be as reliant on the vote tax money.

As well, the Conservatives cutting off the vote tax would not cripple the Liberals finances but would hamper the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, both of which earn more from the vote tax than from donations.

And that would be bad news for the Conservatives, whose victories are in part due to the splitting of votes on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

"ö "ö "ö

In 2000, Premier Gary Doer hadn't even celebrated his first anniversary as premier of Manitoba when he was tasked with hosting his fellow premiers at the annual premiers' meeting.

Next summer, he will be celebrating his 10th anniversary as the province's top dog, by bringing them all back again.

The annual meeting, at which premiers gather with their chief aides to try and reach a consensus on a number of issues including health care policy, trade, and disputes with Ottawa over federal funding. But the event is almost as much about fun as it is function. Every premier wants to showcase his province in its best light.

Doer got the ball rolling earlier this month by issuing the official invite to next summer's extravaganza at the end of this year's event in Regina. He presented each of the country's premiers with a package of Made in Manitoba movies: My Winnipeg, Capote, The Stone Angel, New in Town, and The Haunting in Connecticut.

I mean heck, if movie stars like Renée Zellwegger and Philip Seymour Hoffman come to Winnipeg to work, the premiers must want to come see what it's all about too, right?

The other tidbit of news about the meeting? Doer is hoping at least part of it might take place in Churchill. Which is the height of beluga whale-watching season in the northern capital.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2009 A6

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