Should political parties be funded by tax dollars?

On Cross Country Checkup: funding politics

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he'll campaign in the next election to end the public subsidy for political parties. The opposition parties are all against it.

What do you think? Should parties raise their own money ...or should a portion come from public funds?

With host Rex Murphy.


Guests and Links      Mail       Download mp3 (right click and choose 'Save Target As')    

Listen here:

Download Flash Player to view this content.


Everyone will remember, well - everyone interested in Canadian politics, a slightly smaller class - when Stephen Harper in 2008, fresh from a victory at the polls - a minority, but a substantial one - he had 143 seats the Liberals had 77 ...announced that his government intended to stop the direct public subsidy of political parties. That led to what we now lovingly refer to as the prorogation crisis, and a quite agitated debate about the Harper style, and, to a lesser degree the idea that started the whole racket: should politicial parties be subsidized or underwritten from the public purse.

Well, now Stephen Harper, in a less dramatic context, and with some forewarning, has raised this issue again. This time he's doing so with the continuing recession as his background --- and giving advance notice. So perhaps it is possible to debate the idea itself, rather than just the politics:

Do you agree with the way the federal government supports, subsidizes the political parties? Today it's based on how many votes each party gets ...about $2 per vote ...and after the last election that has amounted so far to $27-million dollars divided between the parties. It's a formula that was created by the government of Jean Chretien to compensate for cutting off the contributions of large organizations such as corporations and unions.

Do you think this is the best, the most advantageous way of maintain political parties? It's not the only way, because parties are free to raise money from their supporters, which comes with a tax benefit for the donors, and all parties get a 50% rebate from the public purse for their election expenses (up to a limit of $10-million).

Also, to get to the politics of it - why is this idea of ending public subsidy apparently so popular with the Tories? It's not just ideological. Opponents will maintain that the Tories will always, or nearly always, be better fund raisers than either the Liberals or the NDP. Is Mr. Harper merely trying to institute a system that will give his party a structural advantage.

And then there's the Bloc. Under our current system some people do find it irritating that the federal treasury of our national government supplies funds for an avowedly separatist party. Not only that ...the federal money constitutes almost 90% of the party's total funding. Would changing the system at least remove the irritation of the national government funding the effort to break itself up?

What's you're position on federal funding for political parties? Should be current system be changed?

What would reformed system look like. How much 'politics' is behind the current proposal?

There are many different options ...from making parties raise their own money providing public funds under conditions that match their own efforts, or their success at the polls.

How much money should parties have? Where should it come from? What should they spend it on, travel, town hall meetings, or TV ads? Should parties be forced to raise money from their own supporters ...or does the whole party system in a democracy require a boost from all taxpayers?

Our question today: "Should political parties be funded by tax dollars?"

I'm Rex Murphy ...on CBC Radio One ...and on Sirius satellite radio channel 137 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.


  • Rob Russo
    Ottawa Bureau Chief, Canadian Press

  • Tasha Kheiriddin
    Columnist for National Post and co-author of Rescuing Canada's Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution

  • Errol Mendes
    Professor of law at the University of Ottawa with a special interest in constitutional and human rights policy. Former advisor to the Privy Council of Canada

  • Heather MacIvor
    Political scientist at the University of Windsor. Her numerous books include Parameters of Power: Canada's Political Institutions (fourth edition, 2005) and Canadian Politics and Government in the Charter Era (2006)

  • Robin Sears
    Veteran political strategist who has lent his acumen to three federal parties. He helped manage the NDP's national campaigns from 1974 to 1988. He's also been an advisor to the Liberal Party, and a spokesman for former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He is now a public affairs consultant with Navigator Ltd. and a regular contributor to Policy Options magazine.


National Post

Globe and Mail

Toronto Star

Edmonton Journal

Victoria Times Colonist

Halifax Chronicle Herald

Vancouver Sun

University of Calgary School of Public Policy study


It is easy to understand why Mr. Harper wants to eliminate the subsidies to political parties. It would give him a huge political advantage. However, we would drift even further from being a democratic nation.
Conservative support comes largely from people with deep pockets, who can afford large donations very easily. No pain involved for them, only the promise of more wealth. Now, consider for a moment, single parents on a limited income, all those workers earning about $10 per hour, unemployed, students, people living on the street, etc. Do you think they can donate amounts equal to our wealthy portion population (Conservatives)? Not very damn likely.

The Conservatives could run attack ads forever and a day, and never be broke. It makes me sick to think how undemocratic our country is becoming. It makes me even sicker to think of the future.
Shirley Walker
Mission, British Columbia


Absolutely do not remove funding that helps democratize a system that is easily influenced by wealth. Naturally, this is an initiative of a government (and a political party) which has the primary drive of removing power from you and me, joe public, and handing it off to private interests. Over the past years in power, they have raided the coffers and pushed restructuring to leave the coffers as open as possible after they leave.

Because this party is the most aligned with the interest to remove wealth from the nations coffers and move it to corporations, they are the most able to fund their campaigning through donations. Therefore, the proposition they have made will ensure the advancement of parties which most represent the wealthy and least represent the middle class and the struggling.

What this party has done so well, modelling greatly on the Republicans in the US, is build a slick communication machinery which sells themselves as beneficial to the average Canadian. The educated voter knows the opposite is true.

Cathrine Morginn


In our first-past-the-post system, an individual's vote only counts for anything substantial if it contributes to the tally for the winning representative. Thus, in a riding like mine, where the popular vote is always overwhelmingly for a party I do not support, my voting seems futile. Knowing, however, that my vote counts for money for the party that I support, makes a huge difference. Voting is a duty, and everyone should participate, but voters will feel much more ownership of the process if each vote counts for something tangible.


Rebecca Tyson
Kelowna, British Columbia


If Harper wants to do away with the subsidies he will have to introduce proportional voting or we  will not have a real democratic system. We know that at least ten per cent vote for the Green Party, yet it has no representation in our House of Parliament because of our present system. Countries like Sweden, New Zealand and Holland are using the proportional system and it works well. Why can we not have have a democratic voting system in our country?

Anita MacLean
Ottawa, Ontario


Dear Mr Murphy,

If the CBC gave you a subsidy based on the number of listeners that you have on a weekly basis would that not be the same as this political party subsidy. What would you say to that?

Thank you,
Paul Selzer


Something else to keep in mind is that under the current system I can donate to the party of my choice through a secret ballot: my vote. True, I can donate to the party of my choice anonymously by giving them cash, but if I claim my tax credit, then I am essentially declaring my vote. Also, do those who want to remove the per-vote subsidy also want to remove tax credits for political party donations, which are another form of a public subsidy?

Cameron Smith
Nanaimo, British Columbia


Finally, a way to limit the Bloc Quebecois! I have a problem with any purely regional party being in The House to begin with. Perhaps we should require all parties who seek subsidy to run candidates in every riding, like the Greens do.

Thomas Brawn
Ottawa, Ontario


Public financing for elections should stop. Just how much does these people cost us? Huge salaries, free travel, huge expense account, gold pensions, bring your wife along "Canada pays", see the world on us, etc. Just what is the real cost of these people?

Eric Baggs
Topsail, Newfoundland


We will, no doubt, get the best government money can buy. That's not democratic. Take away the subsidy, the big money will step in. It would be refreshing to see a common sense, rational race without the trash.

Barney Stewart
Etobicoke, Ontario


So my tax dollars are paying for all those annoying lawn signs, and attack ads in the media? This is absolute lunacy! I believe that the parties need to fund their campaigns, additionally there should be no charity receipts. The amount of money to run any campaign should be severely limited. Let's have more debate in town hall meetings and in the media. How about some intelligent and reasonable discussion? As far as the Bloq, a century ago they would have been hung for treason. They shouldn't get a cent.

Love your program,
Paul Woolley
Sarnia, Ontario


Party funding should be discontinued from all sources except the government. The government should fund pre-qualified riding candidates to the same amount regardless of party and regardless of area. All other funding should be eliminated. To pre-qualify a candidate would need to post a bond of reasonable amount.

Thomas Price
Whitefish, Ontario


I generally support the per vote subsidy, and if it were up to me I would eliminate the tax deduction for political donations and increase the per vote subsidy proportionally.  The per vote subsidy provides a small incentive (for most people) to vote, helps new parties to emerge, and helps parties which may represent the interests and perspectives of disadvantaged groups in society.  You don't need to have the most money to get your message out, but you do need enough money.
It should be stressed that people aren't forced to donate to parties which they don't agree with. Money only flows when the voter votes, and only to the party they vote for.
The actual loss of freedom here is that the voter can not vote for a party without directing their allotted share of funds to that party. (I may want to send a message with my vote, especially in a riding which is not competitive, without directing funds to the party I vote for.)
Dwayne Crowe
Winnipeg, Manitoba


Rex is confused. Removal of the public funding will hit the Bloc the hardest, but that's not because the Bloc's votes are concentrated - they're just getting funded for each vote they receive.  It is because they raise proportionally less money from their supporters than the other parties do. They are, in other words, currently more dependent on the public funding and would be harder hit if they lost that funding.

Scott Remborg
Toronto, Ontario


Should the government fund political parties? Only if we want to live in a democracy!

It is a simple and clear-cut situation. Removing this funding steals political leverage from the poor. Removing this funding would allow the more affluent to gain even greater leverage and the poor would be further disadvantaged. The less well off people of society have been hurt by many of the policies of the Conservatives who are advocating this change.

This move is anti-democratic pure and simple. The Conservative party speaks about furthering democracy but in action they have made many anti-democratic moves. The list is long and sordid, from enticing Emerson to cross the floor less than 24 hours after the 2006 election, to prorogation to not giving information to the parliamentary budgetary officer.

Improve democracy! Keep this funding in place. Furthermore reduce the cap for personal donations to a reasonable level, say $400 annually.

Tom Cullen
Toronto, Ontario


What Stephen Harper should do (but likely won't) is declare that all party spending between elections (notably media ads and flyers) counts towards total campaign spending for the next election. That would put a full stop to all attack ads prior to dropping the writ.

Clayton Tucker
Guelph, Ontario


If we care about our democracy we better ensure that we do not turn to a U.S. style campaign funding where big money wins all. Rex says that if we did not have public funding the parties would have to go out and meet people and do the funding. Yes, true. But the point is that the Conservatives' corporate philosophy appeals to wealthy Canadians and at the other end of the spectrum the socially democratic NDP supports, and is supported largely by, poor or lower middle class Canadians. Take the fund raising dinners where Tories charge $500 per plate while the NDP collects $35 per plate. That tells the story.

Ron Brydges
St. Catharines, Ontario


Welcome back, great to hear you on the airwaves again!

About your question today, the only reason Stephen Harper wants to do this is to annihilate the opposition. This amount of money is not going to pay down our burgeoning deficit that his government has run up. The vote subsidy is a minute price to pay in our democracy. How much did the "fake lake" cost us?

This Tory government has been on a spending spree since it came into power. They have some nerve talking about cutting back on the one hand and spending, spending, spending on the other hand. New, expensive untendered fighter jets come to mind. Spending on more prisons when the crime rate keeps going down is another Conservative specialty, and I could go on. This government is the worse example of hypocrisy I have ever seen.

Cheers, Rex!
Anne Marie Hughes
Beaconsfield, Quebec


Dear Rex Murphy,

A healthy democracy occasionally needs a good shake up, and new political parties. Without public financing of parties, there would be a prohibitively steep financial barrier for new parties to enter the arena. Private funding only serves to entrench "mature" parties. I think both the Conservatives and the Liberals are long past their prime.

Robert Rankin
Port Rowan, Ontario


Hello Rex,

During the show on political funding you asked several times why the other parties can't raise funds in the same way and with the same success as the Conservatives. Well, it's simple: The Conservatives' policies benefit the rich more than any other group in Canada. This makes it a lot easier to solicit donations. Whereas the NDP, for example, have policies that aim to help all Canadians by creating an equitable society by providing support for the poor and disenfranchised - a part of the population who are less able to provide political funding.

I agree that the Bloc are taking advantage of the situation unfairly, but this is easy to fix. Require all parties that run at the National level run candidates across the country.

Finally, please don't fall for Harper's argument that anything he does is for fiscally sound  reasons. Spending money on building prisons rather than on programmes to enable people to get themselves out of poverty, and to deal with mental health issues, and the obscene amount spent on the G20, highlights his hypocrisy.

Thanks, enjoyed the show.

Ben Darrah
Kingston, Ontario


First, as a young non-Conservative supporter in Alberta, the public subsidy attached to the vote is one of the few factors that motivate myself and others to go through the demoralizing ritual of voting for the NDP in suburban Edmonton every few years.  Attaching a small amount, even a few dollars, to my vote, gives it some weight to an act that will surely not have any political influence.

Second, to the point that the elimination of these vote-based subsidies would encourage more public engagement on the part of political parties, I would argue the opposite is true. If private donations were eliminated or drastically reduced and vote-based public funding became the primary revenue source for federal parties they would be forced to fundraise by attracting votes. And how would those votes be attracted? By citizen engagement - not just of the wealthy or the so called "base" of each party - but of all Canadians.

Thomas B.
Edmonton, Alberta


Not sure how this became the process in the first place. In my opinion, to be truly democratic, if they get public money they should be getting equal amounts. This backward logic of paying per vote is insanity. Perhaps the parties with the larger amounts should pay back some of the excess? Keep the tax deductible status for individual donations, with a cap on the same.

Thanks for your informative and interesting show.

Amy Meyer
Chetwynd, British Columbia


It is crazy that we the tax payers are giving money to a party that wants to break up the country.

Michael Mountford
Toronto, Ontario


The political contribution tax credit is the funding I would like to see eliminated. It is deeply undemocratic. If a poor person and a rich person each decide to donate $25 to a political party, here's what happens: the poor person gives $25, and because they do not earn enough to have a taxable income, that's what the political party gets.  Meanwhile, the rich person gives $100 and gets $75 of it back from the federal goverment. The rich person spends $25, the government spends $75 in unrealized income tax, and the party gets $100. The per-vote financing, on the other hand, means that every individual has the opportunity to direct a specific amount of funding toward a party of their choice, simply by casting a vote.

Eleanor Conrad
Roslin, Nova Scotia


When the Chretien government introduced the current form of public funding of political parties, it  severely restricted the ability of the parties to raise funds from some traditional sources, such as corporations and trade unions. Harper's previous attempt to remove the public funding of parties was mean-spirited and fundamentally undemocratic in that he did not also seek to restore the ability of parties to raise funds from their traditional sources. He opted to maintain the restrictions on fundraising (which hurts his opponents far more than his own party), while cutting off the lifeblood of public funds.  

Whether or not we publicly fund our parties is not the issue. The issue is whether, without public funds, our political parties are free to raise funds from whatever source they can.

Glenn McLean
Drayton Valley, Alberta


I believe we should continue to fund the parties but we should use that funding to impose some control over our elections.  If we are concerned about the level and accuracy of the debate, then why not dissallow any public funding to be put towards negative, attack ads that either exagerate or outright lie? I would take it one step further and fine any party that ran these ads or used other means to insight anger and fear. We would simply withold a percentage of the public funding for every transgression. I realize that we would have to establish some sort of standards but I would quote that judge who in trying to decide between art and pornography: "I may not be able to define pornography but I know it when I see it." I think Canadians recognize the difference between a leader who can inspire through real vision and those who settle for making us angry and afraid.

Kate Kehler


I think all political parties should receive funding from tax dollars. I like the idea of providing money to parties based on the amount of votes they receive. I think that there should be a limit on how much money can be spent on campaigns and this limit should be modest. This helps to maintain a certain level of sophistication and intelligent discussion in Canadian political campaigns, which I feel is lacking in other parts of this continent.

I think large campaign budgets end up being used for developing fancy advertising strategies which promote a political brand, yet are often devoid of relevant information that is necessary for informed decisions. Large amounts of money can be successfully spent on communicating strong, likable images (such as tough-on-crime and increasing employment), which relieves the party from having to communicate detailed information about their positions on relevant social issues.

Finally, restrictions on campaign budgets, and in particular television and radio advertising, would level the playing field and would eliminate any perception of unfairness between parties who, for example, are backed by corporations and those that represent the people from different social classes.

Ottawa, Ontario


As a rule we would expect tax dollars to be spent only on goods and services which benefit the public. It is quite arguable that political parties do not qualify as providing a benefit to the public.

As party discipline has become stronger, the role of our individual representatives has diminished. There was a time when a leader owed his position to the support of his caucus. Now an individual MP is relevant only in the numbers game which determines which party is invited to form a government. Between elections they are expected only to toe the line. Parties have long since ceased to be vehicles for bringing forth ideas and informing voters how they intend to govern. Attack ads and the like are hardly public benefits, but it seems to be quite a lot of what parties are about now.

My preference is that parties be given no public funding whatever. Let their supporters pay.

Calgary, Alberta


Creating new political parties is very difficult in Canada. Regardless of whether their policies meet with public approval, funding limits their access to the public through the media. Many people are jaded with the current parties and their ways of doing, or not doing things, yet find their electoral options do not represent their priorities or ethics. Funding needs to address this shortcoming.

Barry Waterlow
Burnaby, British Columbia


I am sick and tired of hearing people from elsewhere in Canada express their thought (and I use the term loosely) that the Bloc Quebecois should not receive the same benefits of the state that every other political party receives. If they are present in the House of Commons, it is because voters have chosen to send them there - voters who pay the same taxes that everyone else does, and whose choices are equally valid as those of others.

I am a little disappointed in your characterization of this question as 'should we be giving public funds to politicians?' when it was always about removing the money question and the possible corruption that follows, apportioning resources based on the choices of voters.

Ken Monteith
Montreal, Quebec


My dictionary gives this definition of a bribe: "Something offered or serving to influence or persuade." What else, by this definition, are campaign contributions by corporations and unions to politicians? The Harper government is seeking nothing less than to resurrect a system of legalized bribery that should be permanently consigned to the trash bin of our history. Let us at all costs stay off the slippery slope towards the U.S. system of unlimited free-for-all campaign funding that has empowered well financed, high-pressure interests such as the gun lobby and the Israel lobby virtually to dictate to the government important domestic and foreign policies that are contrary to the national interest.

Stewart Brown
Peterborough, Ontario


    Comments are closed.