Political parties don’t need COVID cash

The least essential service throughout the pandemic has been politics — which is why political parties should expect all the outrage they’re getting for their bid to get the federal wage subsidy.

Even diehard believers in politics are having trouble with the news that Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and Greens, as well as Alberta’s United Conservative Party, have declared themselves eligible for the 75 per cent wage subsidy going to troubled businesses through the COVID-19 crisis.

So much is wrong with the whole thing: the clubby, secretive way in which all federal parties — except the Bloc Quebecois — have sought it; the possible conflict of interest in voting for it, as well as the stark fact that political parties have declared themselves eligible while municipalities are not.

Let’s not forget that these parties, especially the federal Conservatives, are sitting on war chests in reserve in case of a snap election — which no Canadian wants now either.

Add to all of this the rather lame defence offered on by the prime minister.

“We knew from the very beginning it was going to be important to ensure that people could keep their jobs whether they work in the private sector, for non-profits or charities, to be able to continue to support their families and to make sure that our economy can come roaring back as quickly as possible,” Justin Trudeau said.

Here’s where the prime minister is correct: We are talking about real, live human beings and their employment, and that’s not a small thing. We may be annoyed at the political parties, but we shouldn’t demonize the people who work for them.

But here’s where Trudeau’s defence falls short and, in fact, highlights what’s really wrong with his suggestion that political parties are employers like any other.

They’re not: they are neither a business, a public service nor a charity. They are, in fact, a weird hybrid of all of those pursuits, and therefore, not accountable as any one of them, notably on privacy laws.

The last time we saw this kind of clubby unity from the political parties, as it happens, was in keeping themselves exempt from privacy oversight of their databases when they reformed Canada’s election law in the last Parliament.

We’ve been talking a lot about what good can come from this pandemic and all the weaknesses it has exposed in our society. If anything good can come of this wage-subsidy uproar, it should be in sorting out what kind of business political parties are in, and how we can make them accountable for it.

On that score, it’s time to bring back another subsidy that kept the lights on at the political parties: the one in which parties received an annual, public stipend, based on the votes they received in the previous election.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien set it up in the early 2000s, when he established strict limits on individual and corporate donations to the parties. Stephen Harper phased out the subsidy entirely after 2011, based on ideological aversion to any kind of public financing for political parties.

That phaseout was a bad idea all around, and this wage-subsidy furor reminds us again why that’s the case.

First of all, the subsidy was a neat form of proportional representation, without the messy electoral reform that requires.

It was eminently democratic — every vote mattered. Citizens could vote for smaller parties, knowing they might not get power, but that their couple of dollars for each vote was going to keep the party functioning.

It also recognized that political parties were public entities. If this is truly the case, we should require them to report to Parliament on how they spend their money and what information they are gathering about citizens to fill those political databases.

Many people, including this writer, had hoped that Trudeau would use his majority after 2015 to reinstate the public subsidy for political parties and do all the work to make them full-fledged public institutions. He did not, presumably to avoid the backlash it would have provoked in Conservative quarters.

Cost was also an issue. A private member’s bill from the Bloc suggested reviving the subsidy, but the parliamentary budget officer estimated that it would cost the federal treasury about $45 million a year to reinstate it.

Political parties have taken a hit during this pandemic. Understandably, fewer people are eager to dip into their wallets to help finance politics as usual. One thing is certain — they’ll be even less inclined to donate after this wage-subsidy furor.

After the pandemic, it’s time for a conversation about public transparency in return for public money, for all the political parties.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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