I thank the Committee for inviting me to speak today.
The last time I appeared was during consultations on electoral reform and the voting system. I hope that your work will reach a more satisfactory conclusion this time.
First of all, I would say that making a contribution to a party remains a fundamental democratic exercise, a fundamental democratic right even. In a political system, giving money to a party is as much a type of political expression as it is activism. This is the first thing that we should keep in mind. It is also a way to support a cause, a political stream and, generally speaking, democracy.
Contributing to a political party is also a means for political parties and elected officials to stay in touch with civil society. It is also a way to energize a party’s militant grassroots or to aim to do so.
As such, it is important to think about it and to question amendments to the political financing provisions of the Canada Election Act. I would add that it is critical to examine the oversight role that the State must play when it comes to political financing. My remarks and my analysis of Bill C-50 address those issues.
The rules of political financing are at the core of a democratic regime. We must be aware of the fact that Bill C-50 can impact the balance of political forces and the arrival of new players in a partisan system. That is the case when the rules of political financing are directly or indirectly concerned.
The State has a definite responsibility regarding transparency and equity among voters. That is the oversight role that it must play when it comes to political parties and their financing.
Over the years, Canada has managed to develop a model that differs from the one in the United States and which gives central stage to the voter. It has been a fundamental principle of the Canada Elections Act for a few years.
After further analysis of Bill C-50, we find that it does not question the principles of transparency and voter primacy, but upholds them. It will, actually, increase transparency, but it will not solve the structural problems raised in the political debate, including those related to equity and trust, despite its objectives.
Generally speaking, what are the goals of Bill C-50? First of all, it aims at fighting a certain type of cynicism in response, of course, to critics raised regarding access to elected officials based on political contributions. It seeks to avoid situations in which contributing to a political party is perceived as a way for the richest members of society to get a privileged access to politicians.
In what way does Bill C-50 meet these objectives? First of all, we must recall that, like most bills on election regulations, this one stems from a media frenzy. The party-managed registry of financing activities that will be created as a result of this bill will most likely end up being managed by the Chief Electoral Officer.
One of the important consequences of this bill is that, once it’s passed, it will lead to a registry of lobbyists logic. It is a structural effect that must be debated and given some thought. In other words, the bill will create a dynamic similar to that of a registry of lobbyists.
In a democratic financing system, the origin of donations must, of course, be made public. Bill C-50 goes further when it asks that financing activities be published in a registry, five days in advance, followed by the names of participants. It is a political or transparency dynamic more similar to the prior disclosure of influence activities than to activist activities.
Similarly, the bill could have adverse effects on political dynamics. Initially, such a process will be much more difficult to handle for smaller parties than for the strongly institutionalized ones that enjoy a well-established partisan bureaucracy to manage accountability. That is the first thing.
Moreover, the bill will increase political parties’ risks of breaches, penalties, and blame given the multiplicity of their financing activities. It could also deter certain activists from contributing to political parties; at least, that is what I fear. It confirms the perception that it is suspicious to make a contribution to a political party while, in reality, as I was saying from the outset, contributing to a political party is an exercise in democracy and activism. Even though, in its current form, the bill includes exemptions during an election period, the political dynamics could lead to these exemptions being called into question.
Let’s come back to the bill’s objectives. In order to reduce cynicism and to show that the perception that donors get access to elected officials in exchange for contributions is false, I believe that we must think more about lowering contribution thresholds. We must lower the annual contribution thresholds to a political party. We must also think about reintroducing a type of State allowance.
As for the other aspect concerning the oversight of nomination contests and leadership races, the bill responds to the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendations to account for all expenditures. No one is better positioned than him to establish the appropriate legal terminology to achieve these objectives.
As far as I’m concerned, the questions arising from the analysis of the bill centre around two elements. Why not extend its provisions to include the election of all national party officers? We know that there are campaigns to elect committee chairs and different national executive positions within a party, which are, ultimately, prestigious positions.
Why not also review anonymous donations? We know that Canadian legislation is much more tolerant than that of other jurisdictions, for instance Quebec.
In conclusion, your committee’s work is essential to democracy. The study of political party financing goes beyond a bill to encompass the balance of political forces both in a Parliament and in civil society. By changing the rules of financing, we intervene in what constitutes the sinews of war in politics: funding.
It is important to assess both the positive and potentially negative impacts of amendments. I’m afraid that Bill C-50 will change the perception of what constitutes a political donation — which, in my opinion, must be associated with political activism rather than a gesture of influence — by adapting or integrating a dynamic specific to the registry of lobbyists.
Thank you for listening to me.