It's all the buzz in Ottawa — a federal election seems to be on the horizon. Vancouver South Liberal MP Ujjal Dossanjh has said a late spring election is all but "inevitable."
As soon as an election is called, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops will likely, as in the past, release an "elections pamphlet" as a reflection tool. Without getting partisan, Church communities are one of the few locations in modern society where voters can get together to talk, share and hone their thinking about the complexities of electoral issues and options.
Of all the important themes arising these days, I admit to being taken by surprise in mid-January when Prime Minister Harper announced that he would resurrect the issue of per-vote subsidies to political parties, and make their elimination an election issue. "I think we've been pretty clear that we don't think there's really strong justification for this direct subsidy to parties," he said.
There are really three types of election subsidies in Canada: there is a tax credit available for donors to political parties, there is a rebate available to candidates for a portion of their electoral expenses, and there is the per-vote subsidy. This latter subsidy will grant a party $2.04 for every vote received, and is the only one the PM wants to cut.
In 2010 five parties received $27.4-million from the per-vote subsidies: the Conservatives received $10.4 million; the Liberals received $7.3 million; the NDP received $5 million; the Bloc Québécois received $2.8 million; and the Green Party received $1.9 million.
Conservatives oppose the per-vote subsidy because it is not directly tied to a voter's intention to give money to a particular party (just their vote.) Quite a few commentators have railed against the fact that a party committed to the country's breakup (the Bloc Quebecois) receives this subsidy.
It is intriguing to note that elimination of the per-vote subsidy was not present in Conservative Party electoral platforms in 2006 or 2008. When the idea was floated in the Nov. 27, 2008 economic update, it was quickly withdrawn when the opposition parties began to consider a coalition to bring down the government.
If the PM is again seriously suggesting that this form of election financing is a concern, how might Canadian Christians reflect and react?
In fact, while specifically opposed to the per-vote subsidy, the governing party is not opposed to tax credits and election reimbursements. So the debate so far is not about opposition to all subsidies on principle - just this particular one. Any proposal must explicitly outline who benefits and who loses, and if a change serves to level the democratic playing field . . . or not.
Canadians should be concerned about any initiative that might negatively affect civic participation in this country. In the last federal election, the rate of voter apathy (41 per cent) was higher than the percentage of support received by any party.
As Citizens for Public Justice has argued, "Public subsidies to political parties can provide Canadians with an added incentive to get involved in political campaigns and vote for candidates whom they support, even if these candidates have little chance of winning in our first-past-the-post system. With voter apathy already reaching levels never seen in Canadian history, why would democratic Canadians support moves that could well decrease even further the number of persons who bother to vote?"
How much are Canadians willing to pay for a vibrant electoral democracy? Is this $27.4 million subsidy worthy of the same time on the political agenda as other decisions such as the billions to be spent on new prisons, or the $15-billion fighter aircraft deal? Would reduction in government subsidies open the door to more corporate and union donations to parties, such as in the U.S., where running for political office is now exclusively a millionaire's game?
Beneficial reforms to the electoral system, allowing for more enhanced participation by Canadians, are beneficial to the common good. Activities that limit, constrain and even exclude Canadians from participation in the political process are not helpful.
There are other worthy reforms that could indeed improve Canada's electoral system and encourage higher rates of participation by citizens. Proposals for proportional representation have been the worthy subject of debates and referenda in some provinces. CPJ believes that political parties could democratize their internal operations, allow more free votes in the House, and encourage more participation of women and ethnic minorities in all levels of politics in order to better reflect and engage Canada's population.
Imagine the impact if Christians made it known they would refuse to vote for any party that employed political attack ads in the upcoming campaign!
The elimination of per-vote subsidy funding to political parties may be a diversion from the real steps Canadians may want to take to enhance civic participation and culture.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)