British Columbia’s Per Vote Subsidy Problem

British Columbia’s Premier, John Horgan, recently unveiled his government’s intention to reform the financial laws surrounding political donations. As has been noted in editorial, after editorial on the subject, BC before these proposed measures could accurately be called the Wild West when it came to the political donation regime– in that there were virtually no rules regarding who could donate, and how much could be given. This obviously led to big business money flowing into the pockets of the BC Liberals and big union money flowing into the pockets of the NDP, while smaller parties such as the Greens and the (barely a party) Conservatives, would be left with very little to compete against big money in general. Among the measures proposed is a $1,200 personal contribution limit, a ban on corporate and union donations and measures to ban and protect against third party advertising within the province. However, the proposal also includes a controversial addition to introduce a per-vote subsidy programme that would start at $2.50/vote and work down to $1.75/vote in 2022. It is estimated that this programme will cost the taxpayers $27-million over its lifespan (which actually does not have a definitive expiration date). It is similar, almost down to the letter, to the programme that was introduced on the federal level by Prime Minister Jean Chretien after his reforms to the political fundraising system in federal politics. It was wrong for Chretien to introduce that measure then and it is wrong for Horgan to do it now.

We can dispense immediately with the obvious elephant in the room that Premier Horgan has flip-flopped on his previous commitment not to introduce a per-vote subsidy programme. In addition to being dishonest in this case (and I will give him credit and say he has come forward about his lie), this promise-breaking removes any sort of popular mandate from the measure itself. Premier Horgan cannot stand and say that British Columbians support this measure as packaged up in measures that almost every British Columbian does support, he does not have a mandate on this measure. But in this editorial I will entertain the arguments that are being made for this measure, because even without a mandate, it could perhaps still be a good idea.

A change like this to our electoral system (because that is what begins to become the issue here, beyond just political funding) carries with it the onus being placed on the proposer of the reform to articulate why the measure is required. It is not for me, as the person standing in the position of the status quo, to explain why the proposal should not exist. The fact is that it does not exist at the moment, and it is a change to the system that must stand on its merits in debate before it can be implemented. So we can surely ask why such a measure is required alongside the package for reforms that are indeed required (if not because we are one of the last jurisdictions in the world not to have some measures on this subject). And the answer we get is that this programme is require because the political parties require an adjustment period to tool their fundraising systems and evolve to the new changes. The problem with that argument is that it paints a situation where one is essentially being told that political parties are designed to have only two options right now for fundraising; either depend on big money and the ethical rollercoaster that comes along with that or lean on handouts from the government based on votes. But we know that there is a third method, in fact it is the method that is supposed to be used by political parties and that is grassroots engagement. A political party that cannot build and engage a base that can offer financial and other supports to it should not exist. The basis of parliamentary democracy is civil engagement at the lowest level within the political party. And I get that we have moved from this concept, which will actually bring me to the real problem here.

Now retired esteem parliamentary journalist Susan Delacourt has penned an amazing book called Shopping For Votes that articulates the changes that have come into politics as a result of the expansion of consumerism and specifically the advertisement industry. She compares an elector walking into a voting booth on Election Day to a shopper walking down an aisle trying to pick out a can of soup. And she get gets to run with this analogy precisely because that is how political operatives at all levels view the elector– they are all out shopping for their candidate. A system like this does not require grassroots engagement, it requires money for technical resources which are guided and manipulated by a small, elite group of political operatives. These people usually all have backgrounds in communications, advertisement, polling or media relations. There is no reason to sell as many memberships, no reason to solicit donations from individuals, no reason to engage in order to retain members and develop a pool for potential candidates. No, the system can all be run through a giant communication strategy, usually focused solely on the leader and all it needs is a steady stream of money to keep the machine operating. And this where the per-vote subsidy feeds the machine.

By handing money to political parties alongside each single vote, the incentive for political parties to engage citizens shifts from grassroots to merely getting people to show up to vote. No need to build a dedicated political base, especially when you get $2.50/vote, and I’m sure they’ve done the math and know what segment to target and just what to say to get them to show up to vote. And after Election Day, that is it, they do not need your membership, they do not need your opinion, they got your vote and they got your $2.50. At its core the per-vote subsidy breeds a system where there is absolutely no incentive for political parties to develop a political base. And what suffers as a result is the civil discourse within society. Which brings me to my second point.

A vote does not equal a financial commitment. I would wager that a number of electors in the last BC general election voted for a political party that they would not go so far as give $2.50 of their own money to. I know that was the case for me. I would say it was the same case for many in the last federal election as well. I would go so far as to say that in the United States, during their last Presidential Election, that I am sure there are many voters who voted for a candidates that they would never give $2.50 otherwise. Voting is a civic responsibility wherein a citizen expresses their democratic will in determining who will represent their interests in an elected legislature. As a result of responsible government, this decision can also determine who will go on to form government. It is an important question on its own merits, so important that it should not have any other obligations attached to it other than that democratic expression. Just because a person votes for a candidate or a political party does not mean that they wish to support that party financially. No for that to happen for many people the party would have to become more relevant to them, it would have to actually try and engage that voter beyond the ballot and include them in the democratic process. Perhaps now you see how this per-vote subsidy programme encourages just the opposite.

Donating money to a political party is a matter of freedom of expression. I am free to express my support for a political party by offering it financial support to exist (and perhaps remain in or gain power in the next election). By forcing a form of expression on the elector through a per-vote subsidy programme, the provincial government is essentially violating my own freedom of expression. Showing up to vote is not an agreement to give $2.50 to a political party, it is not an agreement for me to make the specific form of expression of donating to a political party. And yet, with this per-vote subsidy proposal, the government is seeking to make it law, that regardless of how you wish to express yourself on this point, you must make this expression alongside your vote. It is a violation of one’s freedom of expression to attach any strings to the act of voting; voting itself as an expression has one purpose only. It would be absurd for the government to demand that each elector show up to vote with $2.50 in their pockets, payable to whichever party they had ticked in the box. It would be anti-democratic. And although there exists a certain level of cognitive separation because it comes in the forms of taxation, but the fact is that with this proposal you are essentially showing up to vote, and it has a cost to the tune of $2.50 (but don’t worry it’s supposed to go down by 2o22, what a bargain!) payable to political party X.

Never mind that Premier Horgan flip-flopped, never mind that he does not have the mandate for this change, never mind the sheer political greasiness of wrapping this flip-flop in a package of what are otherwise almost all universally agreed upon measures, never mind the $27-million (plus) cost, and the fact that this programme is never set to come to an end at this time; a per-vote subsidy programme undermines the base of the civil democratic system. It provides a strong incentive for political parties to avoid grassroots engagement and removes any incentive for a political party to engage and develop a political base that it can rely on for financial and other types of support. Furthermore, it is a violation of an electors’ freedom of expression because it forces a financial commitment to a political party based solely on a democratic vote. A political party that is unable to raise funds when they cannot rely on big money or cannot rely on grassroots fundraising should not exist on any democratic stage– no adjustment period required.

Photo credit.

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