Earlier this month, the provincial NDP appointed William Neville to be Manitoba’s first independent allowance commissioner under the Elections Finances Act.
A senior scholar in political studies at the University of Manitoba, Neville is also a Rhodes Scholar and previously served as the chief of staff to the late Sidney Spivak, then leader of the opposition Progressive Conservatives in the Manitoba legislature in the 1970s.
The point of his appointment, according to an NDP press release, is for Neville to establish a public funding process for registered political parties that would replace the previous per-vote subsidy.
The per-vote subsidy was imposed upon Manitoba by the NDP as a replacement funding source for political parties, after the New Democrats banned union and corporate donations. As the legislation stood before Neville’s appointment, the per-vote subsidy was essentially a portioned poll tax — or head tax — that entitled political parties to $1.25 per year for every vote they garnered during the last provincial election.
On Thursday, Tory leader Brian Pallister publicly opposed the soon-to-be-defunct provincial subsidy and any other funding process that Neville comes up with over the next few months to redistribute taxpayer cash for political parties. Pallister’s comments fall in line with former Tory leader Hugh McFadyen’s promise not to accept the per-vote subsidy — a move that ultimately shamed the governing NDP to do the same.
As the Sun reported on Friday, had all of Manitoba’s registered political parties taken the per-vote subsidy, based on the 2011 general election results the NDP would have been entitled to $248,836.25 per year, the PCs close behind at $235,668.75, a further $40,522.50 for the Liberals, $13,607.50 for the Green Party and $223.75 for the Communist vote.
Per-vote subsidies are a contentious issue federally, as well. Canadians well remember when the majority Conservative government proposed the elimination of the federal per-vote subsidy in June of 2011.
Certainly, we’re no fan of a voter head tax. The loss of the subsidy has forced the federal opposition parties to step up their fundraising efforts in the face of the Tory’s superior fundraising machine, thus making them leaner and more efficient. As such, we happen to agree with the Manitoba Tory’s continued criticism of the per-vote subsidy.
Yet at the same time, we have to question the wisdom of parties collecting tax credits from government coffers that are subsidized by Joe and Jane taxpayer, while bemoaning what is simply another form of government subsidy. NDP house leader Jennifer Howard told the Sun that the Tories collected about $1 million in reimbursed election expenses, in response to Pallister’s criticism. In that sense, the Tories aren’t any different from any other party — the more they fundraise, the more they get in government subsidies.
That doesn’t mean we advocate a return to the days of corporate and union donations. Donations made by unions and corporations unfairly skew the political process as well, giving those who lead them more sway than the average voter who doesn’t have that kind of money to spend on a political party. This kind of practice should remain banned, in our opinion.
Even now, Saskatchewan’s NDP are calling for a ban on corporate and union donations, as the ruling Saskatchewan Party received more than $3 million in corporate donations in 2011, as reported by the Star Phoenix.
“Some of the largest donors in Saskatchewan politics are oil and potash companies that profit from exploiting resources that belong to the people of the province and are managed by the provincial government,” said NDP leader Erin Weir.
When it comes to political parties and government subsidies, the real questions that must be asked are these: How much access should political parties have to the taxpayer-funded purse — if any? And when they do access funds, what process is fair?
While political parties still have the right to raise funds from individual members of the public, completely cutting off political parties from any kind of public subsidies isn’t necessarily a good idea. Nor is it likely that any political party will advocate that.
We do give the NDP some credit for attempting to take some of the politics out of party funding by appointing a third party to make the decision. But Neville’s got a difficult task on his shoulders. As we said above, we dislike the idea of a taxpayer-funded per-vote subsidy, but it’s among the most democratic funding arrangements we’ve seen.
Finding a replacement will not be easy.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 22, 2012