09 November 2015

Would you pay the cost of a cup of coffee for democracy?

Canadian taxpayers are reasonably generous funders of democracy. Federally, we support political parties in two ways through our tax system. We subsidize political contributions up to $1,275 with an income tax credit up to $650. And we reimburse political parties for 50 per cent of their election campaign expenses and candidates 60 per cent, if they meet certain minimum requirements.

Both subsidies have their unfortunate downsides. For example, only a tiny fraction of registered voters make political contributions, and therefore the contribution subsidy is controlled by a few per cent of the electorate. These few have a grossly disproportionate influence over funding. With the campaign expense reimbursement, the more a party spends, the more subsidy it receives. In effect, the richer the party, the more the benefit.

A much fairer way of public funding is available and in fact was in place from 2004 until 2015 when the Harper government terminated it. This was the roughly two dollar per-vote subsidy which parties received annually for each vote received in the preceding election.

One flaw in this otherwise excellent scheme was the subsidy being distributed on the basis of votes received in the last election. The democratic way would be for taxpayers to make their own choice. Registered parties could be listed on the income tax form and people could simply tick off the parties they wanted to receive their contribution.

And how much would the contribution be? Very little as it turns out. The spending limit for a 37-day federal election is roughly $300-million for all parties and candidates combined. This sounds like a lot, but when divvied up between 25 million taxpayers it's trivial. Over the four-year pre-election period, it works out to three dollars per taxpayer per year. That, you might say, is the price of democracy.

In order to ensure that parties don't become lazy, they could continue to collect privately the funds they need for expenses between elections. (The maximum contribution would need to be strictly limited in order to keep the rich at bay.) An approach to funding elections that eliminates the advantage of wealth is at our fingertips. Would Canadians be willing to pay the cost of a cup of coffee once a year for fairly-funded elections?

No comments:

Post a Comment