The ethics of crowd-sourcing your re-election

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There was some brief excitement on Monday morning as NDP MP Charmaine Borg launched a crowdfunding page that offered rewards for donors that included a mention in Parliament for $50, and an offer to say “Resistance is Futile” in Parliament for $1000, a cheesy reference to her last name and the infamous Star Trek villains.  As soon as Borg tweeted the link to her fundraising page, I was among those who responded that the whole notion was offensive to democracy, and to her credit, Borg quickly took down those two “reward” offers and apologised, but it brings up a host of questions as to how this possibly could have seemed like a good idea.

While Borg may have thought that offering to say people’s names in the House was fun and harmless, what it was in fact is the first step toward corruption – cash for favours.  While it may be innocuous, we have only recently seen the “cash for questions” scandal in the UK, and it’s not hard to imagine that one of the contexts by which Borg could bring up the names of donors was in a question during QP.  While I’m not sure that our donation limits in Canada are enough to suggest that we may see cash for legislation, the fact that it is nevertheless an inducement for an MP to behave in a certain way, harmless or not.  Not to mention, can you imagine how much time would be wasted if every MP started doing this, until we got to the point where time would have to be set aside every day for people to thank their donors on the record?  It’s not a possibility I want to contemplate.

The text on Borg’s donation page raises questions because there is only one oblique reference to the 2015 election, but rather makes it sound like she is some kind of freelance blogger who is trying to secure these kinds of funds to keep up with her job because she doesn’t have a steady income otherwise.  Phrases like “Any donation, no matter how big or small, will go a long way to keeping me in Parliament” makes it seem like she needs the money today, especially with a thirty-day $5000 target posted at the top left of the page, rather than acknowledging the fact that the election is a year away.  In fact, she makes nearly $165,000 per year and has a sizeable enough office budget for staff and resources.  She’s not a start-up, and she’s not an independent without a party or organization behind her.  She has a great deal of money and resources to draw from, so to appropriate this crowdfunding model for re-election purposes is as insulting to the model as it is to democracy.  (I also take issue with her declaration that she’s a “digital native” given that she used to boast that she never even owned a cellphone before she was elected and was issued a House of Commons BlackBerry).

It’s also concerning the way that the party has shrugged this whole incident off as a simple mistake and that she apologised, no big deal.  They claim that they got Elections Canada approval for the crowdfunding scheme, but that they didn’t sign off on the rewards she was offering, which is problematic considering that “rewards” are half the point of the crowdfunding model.  If they were going to give her the clearance to use this model – and make no mistake, the NDP is centralized enough in their operations that this would have had to have been vetted to a fairly high degree – then it makes little sense that they wouldn’t have had some discussions about what she would be offering.  Someone should have seen this and said no, it’s not a good idea to offer these rewards.

That being said, the notion that there should be a “reward” system for crowdfunded donations to a political candidate is another problem because donors in this country are already rewarded with extremely generous tax receipts that rebate 75 percent of the donation – not that this is mentioned anywhere on Borg’s site, which it should be if these are indeed donations compliant with Elections Canada.  (Nor are donation limits mentioned either, for the record.)  In fact, donating to a political party is as much a part of one’s civic duty as is voting and joining a political party.  It’s how we engage with our system of democracy, and to introduce added gimmicky “rewards” like hand-written thank-you letters, autographed photos and dinners with said MP (another possible ethical red flag because it looks an awful lot like money for access) is just another way that we are diluting the meaning of this civic duty and engagement.

People shouldn’t have to be offered trinkets to engage with the system, when the system is built on the basis of community, volunteerism, donation, and hard work.  It’s our way of providing input into the political system from the ground up, because the ballot box is actually the end point of engagement, and not the beginning.  Borg ignores this by adding rewards into the process, providing instant gratification in a system built for long-term engagement, where change does not happen overnight.  She does not invite party involvement, or share how to help with the campaign because she does not acknowledge that it is for a campaign.

People may be applauding Borg for trying to take the social media crowdfunding model and trying to apply it to politics to engage a new audience, but the whole effort has been nothing shy of a disaster.  Politics may be moving into the social media era, but a lot more thought needs to go into trying to take fundraising with it.  Trying to find a new donor base in a younger crowd may be the goal, but doing so in a reckless manner like Borg did should be a cautionary tale that corruption, like the road to Hell, often starts with good intentions.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

Term limits and the outsider fetish
Co-opting backbenchers
Why parties matter
Declined ballots are nonsense
Democracy, not technocracy

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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