Public financing of political parties

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has long maintained he would like to see taxpayer subsidies to political parties eliminated, possibly making it a campaign pledge in the next election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has long maintained he would like to see taxpayer subsidies to political parties eliminated, possibly making it a campaign pledge in the next election.

"Our position on the direct public subsidy is well known. We don't support it, we never have. We opposed its creation and have opposed it ever since," Harper said on Jan. 13, 2011.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says: 'There are already generous credits and incentives in the tax system to encourage people to give to political parties today.' ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))

Under the current system, Canadian political parties are given $2 for each vote they receive. Last year, $27 million was distributed.

The majority — $10.4 million — went to the Conservatives, who received the largest number of votes in the last election. The Liberals received $7.3 million, the NDP $5 million and the Bloc Québécois $2.8 million.

The Green Party, meanwhile, received $1.9 million based on its share of the popular vote even though it does not have a seat in Parliament.

Harper has opposed the subsidies for several years and raised the ire of all three opposition parties when he unsuccessfully tried to eliminate them in 2008.

"There are already generous credits and incentives in the tax system to encourage people to give to political parties today," Harper said earlier this year.

The subsidies, which are used to pay for political party staff and expenses, were designed to offset a 2003 law banning campaign contributions from corporations. They apply to all parties who receive at least two per cent of the popular vote.

Here is a partial look at public funding for political parties outside Canada. Some countries, including the U.K. and Germany, contribute money for general party operating costs while others, such as the U.S. and France, provide money only for campaign-related expenses.

United States

The Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory agency that oversees campaign financing, raises public funds for U.S. presidential elections. Money is made available for primary candidates, parties' national conventions and presidential nominees.

The FEC's website says the aim of the fund is to reduce the influence of large corporations in presidential elections.

The U.S. experience in 2008

Republican presidential candidate John McCain accepted public financing for his campaign in 2008, with the total amounting to $84.1 million US. His spending was capped at that level and he could not accept private donations between his party's national convention in September and election day in November.

Democratic nominee Barack Obama - whose fundraising easily surpassed his opponent's - chose not to accept public financing and accordingly was not subject to any spending limit. He was the first to do so since the system was created in 1976 following the Watergate scandal. (so how much did he spend, actual dollars?)

During the month between the national conventions and the election, Obama reportedly outspent his opponent on advertising by a ratio of at least four to one, reports say.

To be eligible for funds, candidates in the presidential primaries must show that they have broad-based support by receiving campaign contributions of at least $5,000 US in each of 20 states. Although an individual is free to give more than $250, only that amount of any donation goes towards the $5,000 state threshold, and only that portion of the contribution is matched by the FEC.

Major parties are entitled to $4 million US plus cost of living adjustments for their national presidential nominating conventions. In 2008, this amounted to $16.3 million US.

Presidential nominees from each party can receive a grant of $20 million US plus a cost of living adjustment for the campaign period between their respective nominating conventions and election day. In 2008, $84.1 million was made available to each candidate. If a candidate accepts this grant, he or she can only rely on public money and cannot accept individual donations.

The money is raised through an optional checkoff on federal income tax forms. Citizens are asked to contribute $3 of their total towards the presidential campaign fund. This is not an extra levy and does not add to the amount a person pays.

The FEC websites says over the last five years, 33 million Americans have agreed to do so.

United Kingdom

Every year, £2 million is made available by the U.K. government to political parties who are active in the U.K., European and Scottish parliaments, national assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and local governments.

According to Sec. 12 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the fund is made available to a "represented registered party to assist the party with the development of policies for inclusion in any manifesto."

To qualify, however, parties must have at least two sitting MPs in the U.K. House of Commons who are not disqualified from either voting or sitting in the house. In 2009, only eight parties were eligible, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Operating funds are also made available to opposition parties in the U.K. House of Commons, called Short money, on the basis of their showing in the last election. Parties receive £14,351 for each seat won along with an additional £28.66 for every 200 votes received. Money is also distributed for travel expenses according to a similar quota. High-ranking opposition officials receive added income.

There is a comparable system for the House of Lords, called Cranborne money.


Australia distributes public funds to registered political parties, Senate groups and independents on the basis of election results. The country uses a preferential voting system at the federal level that asks citizens to rank their first, second, third and fourth choices and candidates who receive more than four per cent of the formal first preference votes are eligible for the subsidies.

Payment is based on the percentage of votes received and, much like Canada, determined by multiplying the number of votes received by a pre-determined dollar figure. This amount is indexed every six months to stay in line with the consumer price index. 

Between Jan. 1, 2011 and June, 30, 2011, the subsidy amounted to $2.34 (Australian) per vote.

With endorsed candidates, money is paid to the party, not the individual. Independents receive money in their name.

If a candidate dies during the course of an election, the money is still distributed to the party, or in the case of independents, to their agent or designated legal representative.


Campaign financing is strictly regulated in France. During the 2007 presidential race, there was a spending limit of 16.2 million euros for each candidate on the first ballot and 21.6 million euros for the remaining two contenders on the second.

All candidates are entitled to a rebate worth five per cent of their total allowable spending cap but can receive up to 50 per cent if they receive more than five per cent of the vote. Moreover, the state pays 153,000 euros in advance to all presidential contenders following the publication of the official list.

There is a similar series of reimbursements based on vote share that applies to candidates for the National Assembly.


Political parties that receive more than 0.5 per cent of the popular vote in national and European elections or win one per cent at the state level are eligible to receive public funding in Germany. However, the total amount disbursed is capped at 133 million euros and a party cannot receive more than it earned through private donations.

Parties collect 0.85 euros for each of the first four million votes received and 0.70 euros for each vote thereafter. They are also paid 0.38 euros for each euro earned through private donations and membership fees to a maximum of 1,254 euros. The money is distributed four times a year.