PM targets party subsidies

Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicates he will make the elimination of taxpayer subsidies to political parties a campaign pledge in the next federal election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has indicated he will make the elimination of taxpayer subsidies to political parties a campaign pledge in the next federal election.

Speaking Thursday in west Toronto, Harper said the $2-per-vote subsidy, where parties "make no effort whatsoever to raise money is not acceptable to Canadian taxpayers."

"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," said Harper.

"There are already generous credits and incentives in the tax system to encourage people to give to political parties today."

A plan to eliminate taxpayer subsidies of federal political parties in 2008 led to a revolt by all three opposition parties and an attempted coalition between the Liberals and NDP with the signed support of the Bloc Québécois to unseat Harper's minority Conservative government.

Parties currently receive just over $2 for every vote they receive in a federal election, provided they win at least two per cent of the nationwide popular vote. The annual subsidy, used to pay for staff and expenses, was brought in after Parliament passed a law in 2003 banning parties from accepting campaign contributions from corporations.

Parties received $27 million in 2010

Last year, the Tories, as the party with the most votes in the last election, received the most of the $27 million spent on the subsidy — $10.4 million — while the Liberals received $7.3 million, the NDP $5 million and the Bloc $2.8 million.

The opposition parties would likely feel the sting more than the Conservatives if the subsidy system were scrapped, as the Tories consistently outraise their opponents in individual donations.

The Green Party, which does not hold a seat in Parliament, nonetheless received $1.9 million in 2010 because of the votes it earned in the 2008 federal election.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said eliminating the per-vote subsidy would "invite back the bad old days of deep pockets" influencing politics, instead of giving voters a voice.

During an interview on Thursday on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, May said she believes Canada's campaign finance reforms are the "one area we've gotten really right" compared with the United States. 

Meanwhile, Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale said the subsidies "level the playing field" to make it possible for all political parties to participate — no matter their size.

"But Mr. Harper’s position is, essentially, let the big and the wealthy and the most privileged run the show and all the other voices should simply be silenced," Goodale told the CBC's Solomon on Thursday during a panel interview.

NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair said the Conservatives are trying to re-introduce the old corporate donation system and "get their buddies back" — a claim Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre dismissed.

Poilievre cited the Conservative government's reduction of individual donations to $1,000 when it came into office in 2006, which he said ended the "cocktail party" fundraising practices  of previous Liberal governments.

Red tape panel named

Harper made the comments while unveiling a "red tape reduction commission."

The commission, which was mentioned as part of last year's federal budget, is aimed at removing excessive paperwork that organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses have long argued is hindering business growth.

The announcement was one of a handful of appearances Harper planned to make in the Toronto area on Thursday. His itinerary includes a visit to a printing plant and a roundtable meeting with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Harper's Toronto visit comes one day after Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton kicked off multi-riding tours on Wednesday.

Speaking Thursday, Harper left the door open to Layton's demand on a cut to taxes on home heating fuel in return for his party's support of the upcoming federal budget. But Harper said the NDP's position on the issue has been unclear, calling it a "moving target."

Toronto tipped as key election battleground

CBC parliamentary reporter Julie Van Dusen reported that Harper's decision to make the announcement in west Toronto is no accident.

"It's very political, this announcement, because of where it is," she reported. "This is an area that has about five ridings and the prime minister certainly will have his eye on at least a couple of them."

Harper, however, refused to speculate about the Conservatives' chances of making inroads in Toronto-area ridings in the next election.

"I'll worry about the election strategizing when we get into that scenario," said Harper.

The prime minister also downplayed suggestions his trip to Toronto was for electoral purposes, saying Thursday's announcement is on an issue of "national significance."