Tuesday, July 01, 2003

It's Canada Day, and with all the fanfare about gay marriages and the effective legality of possession of marijuana, Canadian political financing reform has gone unnoticed. Bill C-24 received Royal Assent on June 19, and mostly comes into force on January 1, 2004 (if you really want to see the legislative history, see links here; articles on the subject are here and here and here and here and here and especially here, bearing in mind that the limit on individual donations dropped from $10,000 to $5,000 in the course of consideration of the Bill). It limits corporate and union donations to political parties to a maximum of $1,000 per year per political party, and provides that such donations can only go to the riding associations ('riding' is a peculiarly Canadian word referring to an electoral district), candidates and nomination contestants of each registered political party, but not to the national parties themselves or to their leadership contestants. Individuals can give to riding associations, candidates, nomination contestants and the national party, and are limited to a total donation of $5,000 a year per political party. Individuals can give up to an additional $5,000 a year to candidates not endorsed by a registered political party, and up to $5,000 a year to the leadership contestants of each registered political party (the fact that the leadership races for leadership of political parties - which can create the new Prime Minister in the case of the majority party - has been completely unregulated, has long been a failing of Canadian electoral law). Unincorporated groups can donate money collected from individuals only, with a limit of $1,000 per year to each political party. There are prohibitions against corporations having their employees donate corporate money as disguised individual donations (I don't know how easy it will be to police this). The financing shortfall will be made up by public money, based on an amount per vote received in the previous election. Overall, this is a pretty good piece of legislation (the right-wingers don't like it, so it must be good!). It is in fact so good, that the 'lame duck' Prime Minister Chrétien had to force it through over the loud protestations of some of the members of his own party (but here is a good generally supportive analysis by a 'rebel' MP in his own party), and even the President of his party, Stephen LeDrew, called the Bill 'as dumb as a bag of hammers' (after the bill passed, the Prime Minister's office sent a bag of hammers, together with a quite nasty note, to LeDrew). It is distinguished from legislation in many other countries that usually only provide disclosure requirements, and not actual limits on donations. American rules, which on paper seem quite strict, have so many holes in them that American politics is essentially completely corrupted by huge corporate donations, and even recent political finance reform does not appear to have helped. There are some problems with the Canadian legislation:

  1. It will no doubt be subject to challenges in the courts based on its constitutionality.

  2. Canadian politicians are still allowed to collect political slush funds for personal use, called 'trust funds', and these remain completely unregulated (a bill to create, amongst other things a 'Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians' which is supposed to deal with this problem, Bill C-34, regarded as a highly flawed bill, is supposed to be coming in the fall). Obviously, individual politicians can still be bought using donations to these funds and there has to be some form of regulation and disclosure.

  3. The $5,000 limit is probably high, given that the average donation in the last federal election was less than a tenth of that.

  4. The public financing is provided on the basis of success in the previous general election, which provides an advantage for incumbency.

Plato knew the corruption of politics from personal experience, and from his time on good governance has essentially been the creation of methods of keeping the bunch of disgusting criminals we know as politicians as reasonably free of corrupt influence as possible. Although many people dislike the idea of public funding of political parties, it appears to be the only way to at least partially remove corruption from politics. The spectacle of watching George Bush raise corporate contributions should be enough to put anyone off politics forever, and the extreme influence of huge corporations over all aspects of American political life probably explains the mess the United States is in now. Canadian politicians seem to think that Canadian politics isn't corrupt, but of course it is, and this Bill looks like a huge help. Democracy and money are enemies.