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.

Hung Parliament in British Columbia

The final results of the 41st general election in British Columbia have been tallied and the parliament is hung. The incumbent BC Liberals hold a total of 43 seats (one seat short of a majority mandate), the BC NDP hold 41 and the BC Green Party holds 3 seats. As of yesterday, BC NDP leader John Horgan and BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver have reached an agreement that would see the BC NDP form a minority government while being propped by the Green Party for the next four years. I feel the need to be absolutely clear here, because the media at times has not, but this is not a government-in-waiting scenario. In fact, Christy Clark is still the Premier of the province, and will remain the Premier until her government falls or she resigns. However, with this new agreement there are several outcomes for this BC parliament. This post will examine those outcomes and the road to each with some commentary on the fallout from each potential scenario.

Clark Resigns as Premier

In this scenario, Premier Clark looks at the seat-count in the legislature and the agreement between the BC NDP and BC Greens and decides that she won’t present a Throne Speech in the opening of parliament and resigns as Premier. She would have to go to the Lieutenant-Governor of BC, the Hon. Judith Guichon, and request that her ministry be dissolved (but not the legislature, thus not leading to an immediate election). In this scenario the L-G would have the option of asking Mr. Horgan to form the government as per the agreement between the BC Greens (being the party and leader that seemingly are able to establish the confidence of the legislature) or she could ask another MLA from the BC Liberal Party to form government (unlikely). Additionally, in this scenario could also decide to dissolve the legislature and trigger an election but this is the most unlikely course as it would be unconventional for her to dissolve the legislature without the advice of the Premier (and a legitimate question of constitutional law would arise as to whether or not she actually has the authority to do it without said advice). It is also important to note that in this scenario, Horgan would still need to prove that he has the confidence of the legislature through the passing of a Throne Speech.

Clark Dissolves the Legislature

In this scenario, Premier Clark still heads to Government House to speak with the L-G but in this case she asks that the entire legislature be dissolved. This would trigger a new election. The downside to this approach is that the L-G could decide that Clark’s request is not in the interest of the province and undermines her responsibility to ensure a democratic government is in place in BC, and could ask the BC NDP to attempt to form government. We are getting into Byng-King territory here and so it rapidly becomes a constitutional minefield. I personally, cannot see Clark going this route for two reasons: (1) having to overcome the whole “you brought us into another election merely a month apart” will be hard to overcome on the campaign trail and (2) there is too much uncertainty in what the L-G could do (there will be a lot of egg all over Clark’s face if she requests an election only to see the L-G ask the BC NDP to form government and go on to have a successful mandate).

Clark Presses Onward

In this scenario, Premier Clark maintains power as the incumbant government under a party with a plurality of seats in the legislature. This would allow her to open parliament and bring down a Speech from the Throne that outlines her plan for the next session of parliament. If she was shewrd (and she is), this speech would include a laundry list of “goodies” for the BC NDP and BC Greens, which would put them in the awkward position of voting down something that has a policy plan in their own favour. It would bring to light the power-grab nature of the opposition’s approach leading up to the opening of parliament. If the chips fall as the seat-count shows in light of the agreement, than the Clark government would fall but she would have some ground to stand on in presenting a plan that accomodated the opposition, and it would leave the onus on them to explain why they voted down the plan.

The Speaker Issue

The last scenario with Clark pressing onward as Premier and presenting a Throne Speech also has another aspect to it; the election of the Speaker. The first act of any parliament is the election of the Speaker. Because the BC NDP and BC Greens would be holding on to power with a slim majority in the legislature between them, chances are they will turn to the BC Liberals to supply the Speaker (standard in a minority government situation for the opposition to attempt to pick off another seat from the government by sending a member to the Chair). However, the individual elected as Speaker in BC must agree to actually take the job. A scenario could very well play out where the legislature is unable to elect a Speaker because no BC Liberal MLA will accept the job. The BC NDP and the BC Greens could offer up one of their own to be the Speaker, but in a tie between the government and the opposition following a vote on the Throne Speech, conventionally the Speaker would be compelled to vote in favour of the government. So it would break up the agreement regardless. If the legislature cannot elect a Speaker and thus cannot offer confidence to a ministry, the L-G would be compelled to dissolve the legislature and a new election would be called.

Final Word

I am probably going to pen an editorial on the topic shortly, but since we are going down the path of scenarios I will mention my thought-process briefly here. There is certainly nothing immediately wrong with the politicking that we are seeing right now in BC between the BC Liberals, BC Greens and BC NDP. This is how parliament works. But there are many other principles at play here. For example, a fundamental principle of parliament is stability and the continuance of the ministry. This is a strong aspect of parliamentary democracy, the fact that it is designed to withhold extreme changes back and forth in how government’s get formed and how the legislature props up or takes down said ministry. This is evident in the incumbency convention which dictates that the incument ministry remains in power until actually defeated in the legislature or upon resignation of the Premier. It is also evident in the convention that the Speaker sides with the government or more specifically the status quo. Nothing changing things quickly and limited dramatic moments are the centerpiece of the parliamentary system. What Andrew Weaver did by playing king-maker with a meagre three seats in the legislature is unparliamentary and unstatesmen-like. It is a power grab and an attempt to subvert the legitimate government in British Columbia. This is not to say that Weaver had to support the government, he didn’t, but he could have at least heard the Throne Speech, could have at least given Clark an honest go at governing in accordance with our conventions and the formation of parliament. Instead we get backroom deals and a king-maker who essentially lost the last election. I am the last person in line to call what is happening right now undemocratic, but I am first to label Weaver what he is: a power-hungry partisan politician.