Fuss over ministers' fundraising ignores why politicians chase dollars

The fundraising controversy currently bedevilling the Liberal party is a reminder that the presence of money in politics is an uncomfortable fact of democratic life.

New limits on how money is collected should be part of any reform, but also limits on election spending

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has been under scrutiny for being the star attraction at a small fundraiser that cost $1,500 to attend. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The fundraising controversy currently bedevilling the Liberal party is a reminder that the reality of money in politics is an uncomfortable fact of democratic life — not necessarily nefarious, but often vaguely discomfiting. 

We might hope simply to limit the possibility that money will run amok, either in practice or perception.

But that hope should include both the money that is collected and the money that is spent.

In the current case, the issue is collection: members of Justin Trudeau's cabinet are variously linked to events at which attendees pay not inconsiderable, but still legal, sums of money to be in the company of a minister.

In at least two cases there have been questions about the involvement of individuals in attendance who have dealings with the government.

There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access- Liberal's ministerial guidelines

But the controversy seems to have expanded to a more general concern that access to ministers has been available at a price.

And reinforcing that concern is a sentence in the ministerial guide that the Trudeau government released last fall.

"There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties," ministers are told at page 24 of Open and Accountable Government.

That principle is actually not new: It appears verbatim at page 26 of the guide issued to Stephen Harper's ministers in 2011. Nor is it novel for ministers to participate in fundraising activities (Jason Kenney and Jim Flaherty were, for instance, quite good at it).

But that principle does not easily square with the fact that 15 individuals recently paid $1,500 to spend time with Finance Minister Bill Morneau, And now there seems some generalized anxiety about fundraising at the federal level.

So what to do about that?

Do we need new rules on political fundraising?

New lines could be drawn, even if the drawing would be an inexact science.

The Globe and Mail's editorial board says the annual donation limit should be reduced to $100. And, for sure, $100 is a smaller number than $1,500. But there's nothing magic about it. It might just seem less salacious.

Perhaps it seems problematic when the gathering in question includes a relatively small number of people. Maybe the solution is to require that ministers can only participate in events above a certain attendance, though again there is no magic number.

It's tempting to suggest that ministers should not be permitted to participate in fundraising. But that would presumably have to extend to parliamentary secretaries. And then it might be difficult to explain why we'd stop there. Parliamentary committee chairs? Opposition leaders? Why not all MPs?

Remember the vote subsidy?

At some point, fundraising might become impossible. But then this leads to another possible solution: restoring the public vote subsidy. Until Stephen Harper's government eliminated the stipend, parties received a small amount of public funding for each vote received in the previous election.

Stephen Harper's government eliminated the vote subsidy. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

That has a certain amount of fairness and logic, but it's also debatable whether the general public should be directly subsidizing partisan operations. A vote does not necessarily indicate a desire to support a given party and the subsidy also reduced the incentive parties had to actively pursue the support of Canadians between elections.

It would be, in the absence of other fundraising, odd to have each party's financial resources set by the previous election and if individuals wish to donate to a political party, they should be, within limits, free to do so.

We should, grudgingly, acknowledge that political parties serve some role in engaging the electorate.

Yes, that engagement is basically self-interested and often seems puerile, depressing, insulting to our intelligence and only loosely based in an objective reading of reality. But parties are also organizers and motivators of involvement in the political process. Their efforts likely contributed to the substantial increase in turnout for last fall's federal election.

We should grant that political parties need money — their efforts likely broaden the diversity of individuals able to seek office. Even if the foreseeable result of the current furore is some new set of restrictions on how much one can pay or how close one can get to a politician.

What about how that money is used?

Politicians might have less need for money if there was less opportunity to spend it. And if the issue is the involvement of money in politics, we need also talk about how that money is used.

Specifically, that would include a hard cap on partisan spending between elections and a tighter limit on spending during elections. 

The lack of limits outside the campaign period became an obvious loophole over the last decade and election spending became a point of debate after the Conservative government amended regulations to allow for more spending in longer campaigns and then called the longest campaign in modern history. 

The Liberal platform included promises to deal with both issues and both would be worth pursuing regardless of the current fuss — essentially reinforcing the level playing field our campaign finance laws are meant to create and helping to ensure that money does not determine who gets to form government.

Create a non-partisan form of engagement

But a grand bargain on political financing could go even further.

If political parties, as a result of the newest controversy, end up having to make do with less money, there could be a case for putting significantly more money into non-partisan or parliamentary institutions: Elections Canada, the parliamentary budget officer, the library of Parliament, and parliamentary committees.

Let those sources carry a greater degree of the engagement and public discussion that is necessary for a healthy democracy.

Democracy will always cost money. But a combination of new limits on both collecting and spending might at least spare ministers of the crown the time and effort of the cocktail circuit.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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