Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Political party finance follow-up

Following up on yesterday's post response to the Guardian report on how party finance reform might financially ruin Labour were a cap to be brought in, thereby undercutting its significant support from labour unions, a U.K. organization called Democratic Audit has released a report on the issue. It's relevant to Canadians because it is a review of Canada's recent experiences with political party finance reform as a comparator for the U.K.. Here is the report for those interested: "Reforming Political Party Funding in the UK: Lessons from Canada" (pdf).

The report is a brief overview, highlighting some of the benefits our reforms have brought over the past 8 years in particular, since the 2003 reforms. But the part that is being emphasized for UK purposes is how we went about it in Canada and why the UK should not follow our lead as it considers its own reform. From their site, "Party funding reform: Canadian experience suggests a negotiated settlement is essential":
The contrast between the 1974 Act and the next major reform of Canadian party funding regulations could hardly be more stark. Passed in 2003, Jean Chretien’s Bill C-24 changed the landscape of Canadian party finance by introducing donation restrictions and increased public funding to the existing regime. Yet unlike the Election Expenses Act of 1974, Chretien’s proposals did not command full, cross-parliamentary support: the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance both opposed the Liberals’ bill, and their successors – the Conservative Party – have since gone on to make further radical changes to the laws when in minority government between 2006 and 2011.

Stephen Harper’s newly-elected majority government has recently announced its intention to phase out one of the cornerstones of the 2003 settlement, the money-per-vote subsidy, in a move which is widely-predicted to have a devastating impact on Canada’s opposition parties.(The Conservatives in Canada had previously tried, and failed, to do this once before, when governing as a minority).

Although Canada’s new regime of federal party funding regulation has had many salutary effects on the quality of Canadian democracy, the decision to adopt a unilateral approach to reform in 2003 has therefore left an unenviable legacy of partisan reform and uncertainty over how the regulatory structure may evolve in the near future. While it would clearly be easier for the UK's coalition government to pass far-reaching reform of party funding law without the agreement of its main political rivals, recent turbulence in Canada suggests that the UK would be better off sticking with its policy of negotiated settlement, however frustrating such an approach may prove to be.
The author seems to put more responsibility on the 2003 reforms for the sowing of a toxic unilateral approach on the issue than I would. The 2003 reforms didn't cause any party to face dire financial circumstances. It created a balanced system of limited donations and public finance. The 2011 Harper proposals disrupt that balance and do cause financial harm to some political parties as they unbalance the former system by gradually eliminating the public subsidies. Big substantive difference.

The point about the peril of proceeding unilaterally on such a foundational issue is a good one. But even if Chretien had gone with multi-party buy-in (if that was even possible at the time), it's not clear that Harper wouldn't have gone his present day route in any event.

Not a topic we can do much about at the moment. But it's worth noting how our partisan excess on this emblematic democratic matter is being viewed elsewhere - as a case study in how not to proceed.