Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-24, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act (political financing).
I should say at the outset that I support full disclosure of political donations, full transparency and accountability. Canadians should know what individuals, companies, unions and other organizations are donating to which MPs, senators, candidates and political parties.
I support much that is in Bill C-24, in particular measures that would lead to greater transparency and accountability in the political process. I am not sure, though, why political financing has emerged as a political priority at this time. In my view, we have many other pressing priorities: the potential for war in Iraq, for example; health care funding and accountability; implementing the Kyoto accord; renewing our public service; and fixing the gun control registry problems.
Legislation should be used sparingly, in my view, as a tool to correct a wrong, fix a problem and/or enhance public policy and administration. Legislation should also always be preceded with meaningful consultation with Canadians.
I am not convinced that the political financing aspects of Bill C-24 meet the two tests I have just described. Allow me to explain why.
First, I am not sure what problem we are trying to fix or how the bill would improve public policy and administration in Canada. The bill would allow political donations to be made by individuals only, the exception being contributions of up to $1,000 for a corporation or trade union.
Corporations and unions have been involved in the political process in Canada for a long time, perhaps since as early as Confederation. We need to encourage, not discourage, their participation. Do we have any evidence that corporations or unions buy influence when they donate to political parties in Canada? I am not aware of any such evidence.
More recently, the government did have some problems with a sponsorship program in the Province of Quebec, but the Minister of Public Works and Government Services is making significant changes to this program. In fact, the sponsorship program will be delivered largely in house, not contracted out. Allegations of wrongdoing and favouritism are under investigation by the Auditor General and, where appropriate, the RCMP to deal with these problems of sponsorship. In my view, this aspect of alleged political interference is being dealt with very aggressively by the government.
The reality is that most large corporations and many of the smaller ones make donations to all political parties. The company I worked for before being elected, a large natural resource company in Canada, supported all political parties in Canada. I went to fundraisers for the Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP.
In 1998, four of Canada's chartered banks proposed two mergers. I should note that Canada's major banks are the largest financial contributors to political parties in Canada. By and large, they donate to all parties. Did their large donations facilitate that merger of the banks which the banks very seriously wanted to transact? No, it did not make any difference at all. If banks in Canada merge, it will hinge on prudential and competitiveness factors and on whether or not the proposed mergers are in the public interest. It will be no more or no less than that.
Do we in this House believe that when ministers are making decisions they refer to lists of corporate, individual and union donations? This is naive in the extreme.
We are told that buying influence is not a real problem, but that there is a perception among Canadians that this is the case. I believe that as legislators we have enough real challenges to deal with. We should not be legislating to deal with perceptions.
I should note that I will be splitting my time with the member for Fredericton.
Comparisons with the U.S. system are sometimes made. We all know that the amounts spent in Canada to finance political parties and candidates do not even come close when compared with the system in the United States. By way of example, election campaign expenses in my riding of Etobicoke North, as is the case with all political federal ridings, are limited by law and are thoroughly monitored and audited by Elections Canada.
During the last election campaign, my campaign expenses were limited to some $55,000 and of that my campaign team spent approximately $35,000 on the election campaign. When we compare that to the multimillion election campaign expenses incurred to elect U.S. senators, congressmen and women and the U.S. president, our figures pale in comparison.
The $1,000 limit for corporations would have limited or no impact in my riding of Etobicoke North. Only rarely would my riding association or official agent during an election campaign receive a cheque in excess of $500 from any company, individual or union.
At the national level, however, with the legislation before us, political parties would be starved of funds. Taxpayers would have to make up the difference, some $110 million over the typical life of a government.
It is true that the taxpayer subsidizes the political process to date with tax credits and the like, but we would be adding a further demand on the Canadian taxpayer to support this process which would be close to $110 million over the typical life of a government.
I personally would support some limits on corporate or union donations to political parties, a limit of say $10,000 for both corporations and unions, but why would we ask Canadians to further subsidize the political process? I hope the government will be open to amendments to the bill. The government says that it is.
This now leads me to the process that the government has adopted in introducing the legislation. The period for consultation has been very limited, almost non-existent. The party president of our own Liberal Party of Canada has called the political financing policy proposal “dumb as a bag of hammers”. I am sure that if he had it to do over again he might not have said that but that is what he said. I am sure many political parties share that view.
The grassroots members and volunteers of federal political parties across Canada need more time to digest the bill and opportunities for input leading to changes. Many technical matters are in need of review. For example, if in any one year there is a nomination, an election or perhaps two elections in one year, which has happened in Canada, how do we allocate the limits? There are a number of other technical questions like that.
The people at the grassroots level are the people closest to the action. They know what works and what does not and they are very familiar with the old adage “if it is working, why fix it?”
We need a transparent and accountable political process and system. We should not, under any circumstances, accept the concept of influence buying. Pragmatic limits to corporate and union contributions to political parties may be required but the limits proposed in Bill C-24 are unreasonably low. Canadian taxpayers deserve better.
We should proceed with the bill based on the principles enunciated but improve the bill in committee.