Sunday, April 3, 2011

Subsidizing Democracy

Yesterday, Chantal Hébert suggested in the Toronto Star that Canadians may be looking at the first real referendum election since the free trade fight of 1988, the election that lifted Brian Mulroney to new heights of power before slamming the Progressive Conservatives down on the mat five years later. Our present election does feel like it has the strong possibility for realignment - that it's not necessarily going to be in the mold of 2008, that things will be primed to actually change in the wake of this.

Personally, I'm worried about the prospect of the Conservatives achieving a majority government. These days it seems like I can't pull up any paper without an article going on about how Canadians are tired of minority government, and how more and more people want a situation where the Prime Minister can do whatever the hell he wants because party discipline and party loyalty reduces MPs to little more than votebots, and a minority opposition would be unable to stand in its way. So on and so forth. But something has appeared in the narrative recently that I'm particularly concerned about.

It's the per-vote subsidy, which was brought in in 2004. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Canadian system, it's simple: each of the federally recognized parties, upon clearing a minimum threshold of the vote percentage - 5%, I believe, thus extending this benefit to the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Greens - get $2 per vote they received in the prior election. At the same time, most opportunities for union and corporate political donations were eliminated, and the maximum donation was capped at $1,100.

Now Harper wants to scrap it, claiming that it is "this per-vote subsidy – this enormous cheque that keeps piling into political parties every month, whether they raise any money or not – that means we’re constantly having campaigns." His previous attempt to get rid of the subsidy set off coalition talks between the Liberals, NDP and Bloc in 2008 - strangely enough, while this did set off protests across the country, it didn't cause an election! Actually, Steve, I would suggest that the real reason we're constantly having campaigns is because your governing Conservatives cannot retain the confidence of the House of Commons, whether it be through contempt of Parliament or... just because, as I cannot find any concrete reason as to why we had an election in 2008 other than Harper wanting to game the system by taking advantage of Stephane Dion's perceived weakness.

Jack Layton has already come out against this, decrying "the days where money, and those who can findnace campaigns, determine the nature of our democracy" - and you know what? He's absolutely right. It may have come in quietly and not been particularly loud, but the per-vote subsidy is honestly one of the strongest levees we have to defend democracy from the tides of plutocracy.

Case in point: the United States of America. Specifically, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Political signage along Brunette Avenue in New Westminster.

I'd never heard of the Citizens United case before the Republicans started doing auditions for Governors Gone Wild - you know, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin stripping collective bargaining rights from public workers, Governor John Kasich of Ohio selling $7 billion of revenue from state liquor stores to a private agency he himself will run in exchange for $1.5 billion of Wall Street bonds, and so on - but recently, it's become more and more prominent.

The simplest fact is this: the United States Supreme Court opened the floodgates to the plutocrats. It struck down a key component of 2002's McCain-Feingold Act, intended to regulate campaign finance, by ruling that under their interpretation of the First Amendment, there cannot be a limit to corporate funding of "independent political broadcasts." This likewise opened the door to unlimited union financing as well; I've heard speculations that this is the ultimate motivation behind the recent union-busting attempts in the States.

Individuals are still just as limited as they always were, though - no individual may donate more than $117,000 to political concerns every two years. Not unless you're a corporation, though - remember that corporations are not only people, in this case they're now better than people. There's not even an attempt to make it look like it's just opening the gates to everyone to contribute however much they can.

I have no doubt in my mind that the Conservatives would just love to introduce this sort of system into Canada. The per-vote subsidy is the first hurdle, but as long as it's there that big rock can't start tumbling downhill. It's up to us to make sure that the bulwarks of our democracy aren't torn down; that it is votes, not just endless lucre, that will win the day.

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