At the time this article was
written François Gérin represented Mégantic in the House of Commons
Four years ago I submitted a resolution
supporting reform of political party financing at the federal level to a
Progressive Conservative Party convention in Montreal. It would have made it
mandatory for political parties to raise funds solely from individuals.
Since then, a growing number of
Canadians have embraced this idea. Numerous very successful experiments in
fund-raising, in which donations were limited to individuals, have been carried
out. Circumstances have clearly shown that reform of political party financing
is urgently needed and Canadians would welcome it.
Less than 20 years ago, a number of
Canadian political parties were exclusively financed by a few large
corporations. Since then, these large corporations share in electoral
contributions has decreased. But when we consider that, even today, the two
major federal parties raise 50 percent of their funds from corporate sources,
we realize that we are still a long way from true democratization of party
In my view funding political
parties exclusively through individuals' contributions remains the key to
improving our democratic system. I base this on two fundamental principles
which should guide all political activity: Morality and democracy.
Raising funds exclusively from
individual citizens will limit the clout in party circles of the professional
fundraisers, these "bagmen" who are real political parasites with a
disproportionate influence on parties.
Raising funds exclusively from
individual citizens will reduce the risk of having politics serve personal goals
and -- most importantly -- it will give political parties back to those who are
their ultimate source of power, their members and those who vote for them.
Let me outline why this reform is
needed, why it can work and some of the pitfalls that will be encountered on
the road to citizen-based fund-raising. I will also discuss another reform
which complements it and strikes me as equally vital: a softening of the rules
governing establishment of associations for political purposes.
Undoubtedly, being attracted to
gain is a very human reaction. But it is incompatible with politics which have
as their ideal the common good. Government's role, under these conditions, is
to discourage anything in political practices that makes it possible for a
public duty to be bent to personal profit. The same rule must also apply to
those who are in close proximity to elected representatives. I am referring to
their families, lobbyists and, naturally, to those who hold office in political
The present government has taken
some serious initiatives in this regard. It brought in legislation which
requires lobbyists to register and tabled a bill on conflicts of interest which
contains severe measures. The government has also established a new system to
appoint judges and a new system to grant government contracts.
Whether it is lobbying, patronage
or conflicts of interest, we are faced with persons who seek to influence those
entrusted with managing public monies, so that these persons can get a monetary
advantage for themselves or those they serve. The main purpose of all these
activities -- most of the time -- is money.
Now the time has come to put the
finishing touches on these government initiatives which will only have real
meaning when they are part of a whole. The final touch can be achieved by
getting to the root of the evil -- our system of party fundraising. As long as
a major share of parties' income flows from corporate or trade union sources,
citizens are within their rights to ask themselves who we serve.
Does the worker in my riding, who
barely makes $15,000 a year, seriously believe that an engineering firm, a
major bank, or an entrepreneur gives $50,000 to a political party without
hoping for a return on his investment? Does this same worker seriously think
that he counts as much in the political process as this engineer. To ask the
question is to answer it.
Corporate entities are set up for
specific reasons: Profit making companies with a view to making profits;
non-profit organizations for very specific goals, and unions to promote the
workplace interests of their members.
Companies' boards of directors have
a mandate from their shareholders to make shareholders' capital grow, Logically
then, a political donation is an expense incurred in the execution of the
board's mandate. Whether it is promotional, or for something else, this
expenditure, which reflects the notion of short or long-term profit, is not a
disinterested act. Union members, as often as not, pay compulsory dues under
the Rand formula. They do not want to be forced, through their dues, to help
finance a political party which they do not support. Such a situation is
totally anti-democratic. When corporate entities of any kind contribute to a
political party, they are distancing themselves from the goals which they set
for themselves and the purposes for which they were established, whether by
federal or provincial statute. When engineering firms give big sums of money to
political parties, when Bell Canada, Canadian chartered banks, pulp and paper
companies, lawyers' offices and others do the same, what do they expect in
return? If they consider this an efficient way of lobbying, let them lobby
according to the laws governing lobbyists. If they seek cooperation, help, or
the exercise of a little influence to conclude a government-related matter,
first let them read Article 121 of the Criminal Code of Canada. If they want to
play a political role, let them officially become a political association.
Is it not a bit curious that when
one goes through the list of contributors to political parties, more than half
the donations of $5,000 or more are given in equal amounts to the Liberal Party
of Canada, and to the Progressive Conservative Party. Could it be that these
organizations have understood that inevitably these political parties will each
have their turn in power.
What is equally curious is that the
other half of donations of more than $5,000 are given exclusively to the ruling
party, no matter what its stripe.
One really has to bury one's head
in the sand not to see the real reason for these purportedly disinterested
contributions. And what about the big fundraisers? It is all smoke and mirrors.
Good contacts in the business world often provide an entree into top circles
which, in turn, increase contacts in the business world which, in turn, provide
access to the Holy of Holies in order to be in a position to seek.
The limitation of political party
fund-raising to individual citizens, would be a very clear endorsement of
morality by political figures. It would be an unequivocal statement that big
companies, big unions and big contributors no longer have disproportionate
influence in our political decision-making system.
Citizen-based political fund-raising
is not just a moral issue. If it were adopted, it would also send a message of
democracy. Companies do not vote, associations do not vote and unions do not
vote. There are no longer any reasons for the these organizations to play a
determining role in our electoral and political system by financing half the
activities of Canadian political parties. This is an issue of democratic
behaviour. It is citizens who must control the electoral system which is the
very foundation of our democracy. Control must be exercised at every stage of
the democratic process. This requires true citizen participation, but it also
requires true decentralization of party organizations and decision-making.
Obviously, it is easier for
political party fundraisers to get a $50,000 contribution than to get 100
contributions of $50.00 each. But the laziness inherent in this approach leads
to very centralized political parties where the ordinary member is frozen out.
If the member's $50.00 are not needed, neither are his views.
In my riding, there is an
82-year-old lady who, from time to time, sends me a dollar with a word of
encouragement. Well, I can tell you that on a human and a democratic level, I
attach much more importance to that contribution than I would to one from an engineer
who might send me $10,0000.
By giving in to lazy habits,
political parties allow themselves to serve corporate donors, leaving thousands
upon thousands of Canadians on the sidelines. This may be an easier way to do
things, but surely it is less democratic.
When a political party must raise
funds among voters year after year, it is, at the same time, telling them that
it needs them, must get closer to them and regularly seek their views on its
main policy directions. Accordingly, this confers greater worth on party
members and means their involvement is not just limited to election work every
four years. Consequently, democracy becomes a full-time activity, Citizen-based
fund-raising gives contributors an increased sense of belonging to a party and
can only increase society's democratic vigour.
The great virtue of citizen-based
fund-raising is that it forces parties towards greater structural
decentralization, to return to their grass roots and to encourage greater
interaction between the leadership and rank and file. At the same time,
electoral reform should include public contributions to parties, something that
is done in some Canadian provinces. Such financial assistance could be based on
the votes received by a party in the previous election.
If we had applied this system to
federal political parties from 1973 to 1988, giving a dollar per voter, the
Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party would have got about as
much as they received from corporations and unions.
Despite claims to the contrary, the
regulation of political party financing in Canada is not a matter of breaking
new ground. No less than seven provinces -- as well as the federal government
-- are regulated by laws governing party financing.
Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and
Alberta set an annual limit on contributions. Four others Manitoba,
Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and the federal government -require only
information on the sources and amounts of contributions. Seven of these eight
jurisdictions allocate public funds to political parties which meet specific
Clearly, it is Quebec's legislation
-- in force since 1977 -- which is the most progressive, not only from the
standpoint of party financing, but also as regards all aspects of the electoral
Quebec modernized its electoral
rules from top to bottom by decriminalizing the whole process and giving the
Chief Electoral Officer tight control over electoral activities. The Parti
Québécois, which introduced this legislation, confined itself to citizen-based
fund-raising from its establishment in 1968. It always refused to accept
contributions from companies or contributions from individuals of more than
$3,000 per year. This did not prevent it from taking power in 1976.
In this regard, it is especially
worth noting that the Liberal Party of Quebec, which up to 1977 mainly financed
its activities through corporate contributions, adapted easily and very
successfully to the new rules of political party financing. Its annual income
is more than $7 million, proportionally 2.5 times greater than the ruling
The law's requirements, limiting
contributions to individual citizens and requiring disclosure of the amounts
contributed, still apply to this day in Quebec and have been totally absorbed
into Quebec society's political mores. Quebec's experience has, thus,
demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that citizen-based party fund-raising
Federally, since 1987, individual
experiments in citizen-based fund-raising in certain ridings were quite
conclusive. In August, 1987, I carried out a fund-raising campaign confined
solely to individuals and with a maximum limit of $1,000. At that time, $62,710
was raised from 3,162 individual contributors. Since then, my riding
association has continued this type of fund-raising with great success.
The foundation of a political party
is its membership. It is from this nucleus that political parties go to victory
or defeat. During the first fund-raising campaign organized in the constituency
of Megantic- Compton-Stanstead, we were able to count on nearly 2,500 paid-up
members who saw in citizen-based fundraising a way for the grass roots to
participate, express themselves, be part of a decentralized riding organization
and have a real influence on the political process.
In June, 1988, the present Minister
of the Environment, became the first candidate in a federal election to run a
campaign financed exclusively by individuals. Speaking about reform of
fund-raising on that occasion, he stated: "This is basic and should
represent for all Canadians -- but above all for the country's youth -- a
vision of the future, a new mentality to develop and a taste for providing
In little less than a month, his
Progressive Conservative supporters in the riding of Lac St-Jean raised about
$85,000 from some 1,600 different contributors and the election victory was
stunning. Also, during the last general election campaign in the fall of 1988,
the Progressive Conservative Party's Quebec candidates voluntarily agreed to a
type of individual fund-raising based on checking sources of funds and making
the names of contributors public. The outcome was quite positive: $2.5 million
raised in a short time, 85 per cent voter participation and 63 MPs elected in
The Establishment's Reticence
Despite all its virtues and
democratic impact, despite the obvious feasibility of this reform, political
parties hesitate to commit themselves. They hesitate not for electoral
considerations, nor out of principle, nor concern about feasibility, but really
because these political parties usually are generally quite centralized
organizations which have little or no contact with their grass roots. Their
establishment figures are the "Brahmans" of politics and clearly
understand that citizen-based financing, by effecting a deep organizational
reform within political parties, would bring their role and influence into
question. Going from a highly-centralized organization to one which is totally
decentralized demands a real act of political will, something that is never
This reform is, nevertheless,
desirable and desired, not only by the average Canadian but also heads of
enterprise and small and medium-sized business. A survey, carried out by the
Canadian Federation of Independent Business in 1988 among its 80,000 members
showed that this reform is wanted and preferred. For the last 13 years,
Quebec's experience has provided eloquent proof that it works.
Reticence is felt by those who are
well-established in political parties and are close to centres of decision.
These persons, who often play a very important role within the political
parties and provide valuable service to our country are naturally hesitant
about upsetting organizational structures within which they are comfortable,
even though they are outmoded. Other insiders are only concerned about their
personal interests. Their loud cries of protest, more often than not, are a
defensive reflex action.
Freedom of Association
The goal of true electoral reform
is to better serve democracy. This is why I have been pleading for
citizen-based party financing for so many years. But this facet of democracy
must also reflect our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and respect the great
Canadian principles which guide and unite us: Freedom of Association and
Freedom of Expression.
The last election campaign sparked
formation of certain groups which, quite rightly, wanted to make themselves
heard and influence voters. Some were for or against abortion, for or against free
trade, concerned about such and such an environmental issue. There were no
rules governing these groups, even though some spent astronomical amounts
during the campaign, perhaps more money than would have been allowed for a
registered political party with candidates in Canada's 295 constituencies.
There were no rules requiring disclosure of amounts spent, balance sheets,
sources of funds or any other kind of check.
The problem springs from the fact that
the rules governing formation of a political party are too rigid, restrictive
and severe to be applied in practical fashion or be constitutionally valid. Of
course, we have the power to legislate to impose certain measures of control
and verification on political associations. But then we should do it in such a
way that the rules are the same for all these politically-active organizations
-- parties, associations, and interest groups which want to take part in the
Forming a political association
should be made very simple, provided it is subject to the kinds of rules that I
just discussed. Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one should
always have the right to associate with like-minded Canadians to promote an
idea and try to convince other Canadians to embrace it. In my opinion, any
measure which restricts this right or hinders me from exercising it is
There is no reason to try and limit
the number of political associations. Registering them with the Chief Electoral
Officer should be sufficient. Once this first step is taken, an association
should obey the law by filing an audited annual report, raise its money
exclusively from Canadian voters, make the names of contributors and the
amounts given public, disclose spending information, appoint an official agent
and so on.
Then, these political associations
would contribute positively to democracy and our country's political life.
Distinctions between activities during an election campaign and between
campaigns could be made in law. In any event, the rules should be the same for
all politically-active groups, whether they are registered political parties or
The Progressive Conservative
Party's present constitution encourages independent riding associations. Under
what I am proposing, riding associations could become independent political
associations, either affiliated to a main political party or clearly linked to
its main organization. In the latter case, all means of control should be
totally taken over by the political party. It is obvious to me that in this
area, there can be no half-measures, as is the case at present. Riding
associations, under the present system, are not obligated to make the amounts
of money that they hold public, nor to reveal how they spend. Nor are they
subject to any of the rules which govern registered political parties.