Politicians aren’t known to surrender their self-interest without a fight. If they’re forced to go down, you can be sure they’ll take something of yours with them. As outrage over nakedly transactional campaign fundraising gives way to policy placebos marketed as meaningful reform, democracy will suffer the collateral damage.
The Globe and Mail ran a story last week in which various corporate donors in Ontario expressed “wariness” about the ruling Liberal Party’s extortive fundraising techniques. In the world of Ontario big business, it is evidently common knowledge that unless you’re willing to open your chequebook “calls will not be returned as quickly and the company will not get meetings with government.” Meetings with the government, in turn, tend to occur in the context of exclusive dinner parties where tickets routinely cost over 10 grand. The Globe revealed a similar pay-for-facetime regime in the British Columbia Liberal Party, where “people pay big money to get special access to Ms. Clark,” the premier.
This is undeniably a problem. Governments are obligated to govern on behalf of the general interest, and an offering at the ruling party’s alter should not be the cost any group must pay for attention.
That said, politicians do a lot of stupid stuff and it’s difficult to legislate against general misgovernance. Despite their pretense of exposing a systematic problem, the indignities illustrated by the Globe stories have little to do with presence of money in politics per se — everyone agrees running for office is going to cost something — but rather how certain politicians choose to gather that money and misuse their governing powers in the pursuit of it. Conventional wisdom presumes rich interests bully politicians into doing their bidding, but clearly the reverse can be just as true.
Practical solutions are limited. Stricter sunshine and lobbying laws could force politicians to keep clearer records regarding from where they receive their campaign cash, with whom they meet, and for what price (a great deal of the Wynne-Clark controversies center around sheer mysteriousness), which would improve democratic accountability. Conflict-of-interest laws could also be strengthened to recognize the obvious reality that campaign contributions can easily create the appearance of torn loyalties for those possessing governmental authority to regulate and subsidize.
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Politicians are not, by and large, particularly interested in being subject to this kind of scrutiny, however, so their preferred solution has simply been to burn the entire house down. As a means of damage control, the Ontario Liberals have promised to do what governments in Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia — as well as the federal government – have already done, namely ban all donations from corporations and unions, impose donation caps on private individuals, and restrain the rights of so-called “third party” political activists.
As usual, this will achieve little beyond chilling freedom of speech. Just as it is a fantasy to believe big business only bullies big government (as opposed to vice-versa), it is a shallow stereotype to believe all donations to parties or politicians are corrupt quid-pro-quo. There is actually very little hard evidence suggesting most political donations, even the very large ones, are made for any reason beyond partisan charity — which is to say, simple affinity for the party —nor is there much proof that banning big money makes politicians behave much differently in any realm beyond fundraising. Stephen Harper took no money from Big Oil, but his agenda still aligned with theirs. Justin Trudeau took no money from public sector unions, yet his administration has proven favorable to their interests.
All blunt caps really do is force politicians to spend a great deal more time fundraising, since they make parties exclusively dependent on small donors. Those dinner soirees aren’t going anywhere, in other words, they’ll just serve cheaper food — and more often. Cap schemes also tend to compensate politicians for these new revenue difficulties with a regime of public subsidies and tax credits — as was the case following Ottawa’s reforms — which creates the unsavory spectacle of politicians transferring taxpayer cash directly to themselves. Lastly, in the name of “fairness,” caps are almost always accompanied by the kneecaping of non-partisan political activist groups, with the amount of money they can spend on their own causes and campaigns severely restrained. This ensures the terms and substance of the political debate remains set by the political parties as much as possible.
Canadian democracy and free speech is already in a bad state. Politicians are using a mess of their own making to worsen the crisis.
Follow J.J. on twitter: @JJ_McCullough