Money, as we all know, makes the world go round, or so the saying goes. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to figure out money, and it still remains largely a mystery to me. I remember reading somewhere that if you aren’t confused about money then you haven’t thought enough about it. Money is useful as a store of value and as a unit of exchange that we can trade with each other, and all ventures need it.
Among those ventures is politics. It costs money to establish and maintain a political party; to participate in elections; to operate a complex organization. Political parties raise the money they need in various ways, and on PEI donations are their lifeblood. This is the case in lots of other jurisdictions also, and in many of them people are growing increasingly concerned about how money donated to political parties is having a toxic impact on the political process. While it may often be difficult to definitively prove that there is a direct connection between specific public policy which might favour certain individuals or companies, and financial support from those same places, it is undeniable that for those with money, there is at least a hope, if not an expectation, that supporting their party or candidate of choice will be repaid with political favours. It is for this very reason that a great many places have strict controls on political funding. As things currently stand on PEI when it comes to political donations, we have some of the loosest rules of any jurisdiction on Earth. Anybody (or any corporation) living anywhere can make a donation of unlimited amount to a party on PEI. Just think about that for a second; some wealthy person or company in some distant land could, with total legitimacy, fill the bank account of their Island party of choice and – at least notionally – feel justified in expecting to have their back scratched in return. In a large jurisdiction, a few million dollars might be an insignificant amount (Hillary Clinton raised $1.4 billion during the most recent US election) but here on PEI, the potential influence one can purchase with an amount which to some is nothing more than pocket change, is a frightening prospect. For this reason, back on May 11th 2016, Premier MacLauchlan proposed long-overdue changes to PEI’s political financing laws. Initially he was unequivocal that these changes would be based on the federal rules that disallow corporate and union donations to parties, and limit personal donations. I remember praising this initiative publicly and thanking the Premier for offering a plan to fix what had been a glaring danger to the integrity of Island politics for far too long.
Since then the Premier has backed away from this promise, and said that he will continue to allow corporate and union donations, though to his credit, he is proposing a limit for the first time in our Island’s history. The breaking of this clear promise came as a deep disappointment to myself and many other Islanders, and as with lots of things in politics, you have to dig down below the surface of what is said and done to discover the true motivation for a particular action.
Let’s look at the most recent disclosures for party financing that were released by elections PEI last week. The numbers were pretty typical, with the Liberal party raising by far the most money, the Tories receiving a healthy but lesser amount and the NDP and Greens far, far below. (The Greens raising merely 5% of the Liberal total.) There are other differences, which again follow the standard pattern from one year to the next on PEI: about 60% of the donations to the big parties come from companies and corporations, and for every Party other than the Greens, the majority of funds raised comes from donations over $250.
My sense is that people are increasingly dismayed with politics and politicians; it was certainly the message I heard loudest and most often during the last provincial election. Turning that perception around and restoring Islanders’ faith won’t be an easy task, but one thing that could be done fairly easily and quickly would be to remove any perception of political interference through moneyed influence. If we agree that politics is important, and that funding remains a necessity to facilitate the political process, then removing entirely, or drastically reducing personal donations to parties would be a simple thing to achieve. Funding parties through a per-vote subsidy (as was done federally until recently when Mr. Harper dismantled the system) is a way of achieving this goal. And for those who shudder at the thought of their tax dollars going to political parties, remember that donations made under our current system are eligible for tax rebates of up to 75%. These rebates add up to over a quarter of a million of Islanders’ tax dollars used each year as incentives for people to donate to political parties. Per-vote subsidies would not only remove the smell of corruption, it would create a correlation between party funding and support at the polls. Some combination of per-vote subsidy and strictly limited personal (not corporate or union) donations might be the best model for PEI; allowing those who wish to support the party of their choice financially – as well as through numerous opportunities for volunteering – is something I’d support.
With no legislation having come forward to date, there is still an opportunity for Premier MacLauchlan to uphold his initial promise. Politics is important, and so is maintaining faith in the political system. Money may indeed make the world go round, but it also has the power to twist politics out of shape. I prefer the straight and narrow, and the Premier has a perfect opportunity to make it that way. I hope he does the right thing.