At the time this article was written David
Payne represented Vachon in the Quebec National Assembly and was Parliamentary
Secretary to the Prime Minister of Quebec. This is a revised version of his
presentation at the 38th Canadian Regional Conference of the Commonwealth
Parliamentary Association in August 1999.
This article outlines
Quebec’s model for financing of political parties. It looks at the procedure
adopted to guarantee equitable financing, examines the controls put into place
to ensure the enforcement of the Act and, finally looks at the respect of the principles
inherent in this model.
From time immemorial, political
parties have had to seek financing in order to conduct their political
activities, to recruit personnel, to rent office space, to publish their programme
and to cover their election expenses. In Quebec, an old saying claims that it
takes more than prayers to win an election. For years, there existed no
legislative provisions relating to political financing or election expenses.
The Election Act of 1875 established the first requirements concerning
the election expenses of candidates, who from that time on were required to
appoint an official agent to attend to their expenses. This obligation was
abolished in 1932. Beginning in 1895, the returning officers were obliged to
have published in the Official Gazette a statement of candidates’
election expenses. This requirement remained in effect until 1926.
From 1932 to 1963, we reverted
to the former situation where no legislation provided for election expenses,
nor for party and candidate revenues. It goes without saying that this lack of
legal supervision, especially with regard to financing, left an opening for
considerable abuse. This marked an era of disguised campaign financing. During
this period, significant amounts of money were regularly given to political
parties or to candidates in exchange for all types of favours. Thus, it was not
rare to find that the granting of government contracts or the obtention of
certain positions depended on substantial sums of money being handed over to
finance the party in power. This method of proceeding had an effect on the
trust the electors had in the equity of the electoral system and in the probity
of their elected representatives.
In 1963, the Assembly adopted a
new Election Act to which a substantial section on election expenses was
added. From then on, political parties and candidates were under the obligation
to name an official agent responsible for handling election expenses. The
expenses of parties and candidates were limited and it was established that the
Government reimburse a portion of election expenses incurred by official agents
representing candidates returned at the last election or those having obtained
20% of the votes in their electoral division.
In 1975, the first statute on
political financing was adopted in Quebec. This statute ensures a form of
public financing for the parties represented at the National Assembly by means
of an annual allowance granted by the Government. However, this statute does
not in any way make reference to other sources of political financing.
The year 1977 constituted a
turning point in the rehabilitation of Quebec’s electoral practices. At the
instigation of Prime Minister René Lévesque, who had made the commitment, the
Assembly adopted a bill respecting the financing of political parties. The
object of this bill was to put in place a system of financing by the people
characterized by transparency. The bill, which was adopted unanimously by the
five parties represented at the National Assembly following an extensive public
debate, established a unique integrated system for controlling political
financing and election expenses. Furthermore, by restricting political
financing to the electors, the faith of the electorate in the equity of the
electoral process was considerably increased.
Characteristics of the Quebec
The Quebec model is
characterized first of all by significant support from the Government. The
Government pays the authorized political parties an allowance to be used to
reimburse the expenses incurred for their current administration, the
propagation of their political programmes and the coordination of the political
activities of their members.
The allowance is computed by
dividing among the authorized parties, proportionately to the percentage of the
valid votes obtained by them at the last general election, a sum equal to the
product obtained by multiplying the amount of $0.50 by the number of electors
entered on the list of electors used at that election.
This allowance represent $2.6
million dollars annually and it is paid on a monthly basis upon production to
the Chief Electoral Officer of a request for payment and of vouchers indicating
that the expenses were incurred by the party, as stipulated in the statute
(rent, telephone, staff salary, publicity, political activities, etc). This
allowance is not to be confused with the sums paid to parties represented at
the Assembly in support of their parliamentary activities.
In a four-year cycle, from 1993
to 1996, the proportion of political party revenues created by the Government
allowance averaged approximately 17%. This proportion fluctuated (from 11% in
1994 to 24.31% in 1996) from one year to the next, particularly since the
reimbursement of election expenses and the contributions represent a greater
portion of the revenues in an election year.
Political parties are also
reimbursed for a portion of the cost incurred for the audit of their annual
financial report, which equals 50% of this cost, to a limit of $5500.
An additional source of public
financing for parties and candidates is obtained through the reimbursement of
election expenses. Indeed, the Chief Electoral Officer reimburses an amount
equal to 50% of the expenses incurred and paid in conformity with the Act for
each candidate who was declared elected at the current election, or who
obtained at least 15% of the valid votes. The election expenses for each
candidate are limited to $1.00 per elector in the electoral division.
Political parties which obtained
at least 1% of valid votes also receive a reimbursement equal to 50% of their
election expenses. The election expenses for each party are limited to $0.50
per elector for all the electoral divisions in which such party has an official
candidate. Following the election and depending on the results of the vote,
certain candidates are entitled to an advance on this reimbursement.
Lastly, the Government
contributed financially to political financing via tax credits granted to
taxpayers. The Quebec elector is given a tax incentive for his political
contributions. It is in fact possible for him to obtain a non-refundable tax
credit of up to $250. This political contribution tax incentive is valid for
any contribution to an authorized political entity (party, local party
authority, authorized independent candidate).
Government financing aims to
supplement and stabilize political party revenues, in order to avoid elected
representatives becoming indebted to wealthy individuals or to companies for
their election. This extensive public financing was introduced to compensate
somewhat for the implementation of financing based on contributions provided
strictly by electors.
The second characteristic of the
Quebec model – and where it differs from most other models – is that only the
electors may, from their own resources make contributions to parties. It is
therefore prohibited for corporations (companies, unions and interest groups)
to make a contribution to an authorized political entity (party, local party
authority or authorized independent candidate). Such measures prevents these
groups from exerting political pressure on elected representatives in exchange
for the financing they could have otherwise provided them with.
In the Election Act, not
only sums of money but also services rendered and goods furnished free of
charge for political purposes are deemed to be contributions. Political parties
may also obtain financing through the holding of activities, as long as the
admission fee is not over $60.00 per day. Beyond this limit, the amounts
collected are deemed to be contributions. Contributions to each political party
including their constituency associations and to each of the independent
candidates may not exceed $3000 annually per elector, thus encouraging modest
but diversified contributions. Financing by the people and contribution limits
are at the heart of the Quebec model for political financing. This diversified
financing system allows political parties to maintain their independence with
relation to economic interests.
In short, no wealthy individual
may donate large amounts of money to a party. No corporate body has the right
to finance a political party or an independent candidate. The object of these
measures is to avoid a situation in which candidates and elected
representatives’ hands would be tied and they would find themselves in a
position of political indebtedness to someone.
Equitable Access to the Media
The Quebec model for political
financing provides for equitable access to the media, both during and outside
an election period, which constitutes its third characteristic.
Outside an election period, the Election
Act stipulates that the media may make air time or space available to
political parties free of charge, provided that this service be offered
equitably as the quality and quantity to the political parties represented in
the National Assembly and to the parties which received at least 3% of the
valid votes in the last general election. The media are not obliged to make air
time available to the political parties, but if they do so, it must be carried
out in an equitable fashion.
Likewise, during an election
period, the media may make air time or space available to party leaders or
candidates free of charge, provided that this service be offered equitably as
to quality and quantity to all candidates in the electoral division or to all
leaders of parties represented in the National Assembly or which received at
least 3% of the valid votes in the last general election.
Furthermore, in an effort to
guarantee the public’s right to be informed on the issues under debate during
an election, so that the electors may make an informed choice, the Canadian
Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, an independent organization
charged with regulating broadcasting, issues directives to the electronic media
to ensure the equitable treatment of parties and candidates during an election period.
The organization thus ascertains that all parties and candidates shall be
entitled to a certain amount of coverage for the presentation of their views.
The media plays an important
role with regard to how the parties and candidates in contention will be
perceived. They set their own rules with regard to the journalistic approach to
be used, whether it be within the context of the news, public affairs
programmes or debates between candidates. The Quebec Press Council, whose
authority is limited to making recommendations may nonetheless receive
complaints from the public or from political participants.
Moreover, the Election Act
prohibits any partisan publicity in the seven days following the day on which
an election is called. This provision aims to compensate the strategic
advantage that the party in power has, since the issuing of an order
instituting an election is the Prime Minister’s prerogative. Therefore, during
this period, no person, except the Chief Electoral Officer, may broadcast or
cause to be broadcast by a radio or television station or by a cable
distribution enterprise, publish or cause to be published in a newspaper or
other periodical, or post or cause to be posted in a space leased for that
purpose, publicity relating to the election. All parties and all independent
candidates are thus on an equal footing.
Within the context of a
election, access to the media is assured for political parties and candidates.
The Act establishes financing
regulations for the authorized entities (parties, local party authorities and
authorized independent candidates) which provide candidates and parties with
the financial means to be heard, thus giving candidates a chance to express
their viewpoints and ultimately to be elected. The restrictions which are
imposed, particularly regarding the possible sources of financing and the
permitted election expenses (which are limited to $0.50 per elector for a party
and to $1.00 per elector for each candidate) aim to maintain equity between
candidates in a given election.
These fixed limits on election
expenses allow the parties and their candidates to know in advance the sums
that they will require to undertake their campaign. This facilitates the
management of their campaign budget while giving them an indication of the
magnitude of the amounts they must collect.
Observers who have studied the
evolution of political party financing since the implementation of this model
in 1977 have noticed that the parties do manage to collect the sums necessary to
conduct a campaign. According to Professor Louis Massicotte from the University
of Montreal, prohibiting corporate financing is far from having led to the
stifling of Quebec parties. An article written by Professor Massicotte, who
studied the financing of political parties in Quebec from 1977 to 1989,
indicates a certain number of general observations.1
In 1977, when the provisions
regarding political party financing were introduced, certain individuals feared
that the prohibiting of contributions by corporations and the establishing of a
limit to the contributions by electors could eventually create major financing
difficulties for the authorized political parties. The parties appear to have
adjusted in general very well to these new rules.
The electors are, and by far,
the main source of financing of political parties. Indeed, the contributions
made by electors make up on the average over 60% of the authorized parties’
In light of the financial
reports published annually by the Chief Electoral Officer, there are
indications that in the past fours years (from 1993 to 1996), average
contribution made has been $101.40. For the same period, the contributions of
$200 or less represent an average of 88.6% of the total number of contributions
and 39.3% of the total amount of contributions collected.
The regulations for political
financing which are in effect in Quebec allow political parties to be in closer
contact with their electorate by canvassing for financing by the people.
The best of legislative
provisions might be rendered useless if the organization responsible for their
administration or their implementation did not have the proper control methods.
The Quebec model provides for essentially four methods: the obligation for
parties to produce financial reports, the disclosure of the names of persons
who make contributions, the systematic examination of these reports and the
authority of the Chief Electoral Officer to investigate and prosecute.
In Quebec, both the provincial
political parties and their local party authorities are obliged to produce an
annual financial report. Only the parties are under the obligation to produce
audited financial reports. The financial reports must specifically indicate the
name and address of each elector whose total contribution exceeds $200.
These reports are closely
examined by the various participants (parties, candidates, electors, media) who
are most vigilant in this undertaking. Moreover, the candidates and parties
exercise mutual surveillance of each of their opponents’ practices.
It is very important that those
involved exercise vigilance with regard to enforcing the provisions of the Act.
But first and foremost, it is important that a neutral and impartial
institution be equipped with efficient control methods. In Quebec, the Chief
Electoral Officer possesses a power of surveillance and of control with respect
to political financing and election expenses. For this purpose, among the staff
are experienced auditors who carry out the examination of the reports that are
submitted to them and who see to the stringent control of contributions and
With the assistance of lawyers
and investigators, the Chief Electoral Officer is regularly called upon to make
inquiries, whether it be following complaints on the part of these participants
or on his own initiative. When his inquiry discloses infraction, he has the
authority to prosecute the offenders in court.
The decision to institute legal
proceedings is based on three criteria. The Chief Electoral Officer generally
decides to institute proceedings when the charges constitute a clear violation
of the law, when there is sufficient evidence to ensure the successful outcome
of a case and when the legal action is of an exemplary nature. When legal
action is in fact undertaken, it is the responsibility of the courts to examine
the evidence submitted and to rule consequently.
The Respect of Principles
The examination of the
provisions regarding political financing enables us to identify the three major
principles on which the Quebec model for political financing is based:
pluralism, equity and transparency.
Pluralism is ensured through a
party authorization system based on simple rules which allow any individual to obtain,
with a minimum of restrictions, the authorization to form a political party.
Thus, in order to be recognized, a political party must obtain authorization
from the Chief Electoral Officer. To receive this, an application must be
submitted indicating among other things the name of the party, an address to
which communications must be sent, as well as the name, address and telephone
number of the party’s leader and of its official representative, responsible
for revenues and party expenses. The application must be accompanied by the
signatures of 500 electors declaring that they are members or supporters of the
party and in favour of the application for authorization.
Authorization, which is required
from all entities (party, local party authority or independent candidate) that
wish to collect contributions or to incur election expenses, remains valid
unsofar as the party discharges its debts within the six months following their
receipt, pays interests on loans annually, produces the information and the
reports required by the Election Act and presents a minimum of twenty
candidates at each general election. Authorization does not in any way have
anything to do with the content of the programme or the ideas upheld by a
political party. The Act thus allows for the expression of a variety of
opinions without undue restrictions.
The Quebec system for political
party financing is also characterized by transparency, in that parties,
candidates and various local party authorities must account for their activities,
by producing reports for the Chief Electoral Officer. The information contained
in these reports is public information. Any person may examine these reports
and make copies of them. The Chief Electoral Officer ensures access to this
information, particularly by publishing an annual report containing the
financial statements of parties, a summary of the financial reports of parties
(including their authorities), the list of contributors having donated more
than $200 as well as various statistics on the financial situation of parties.
We have seen that equity is
ensured by the financial participation of the Government, by equal access to
the media, by the fact that contributions are limited and may be made only by
electors, and by the restriction of election expenses.
Nevertheless, no electoral
system may lay claim to flawless equity. Some of the apparent violations of the
principle of equity are inherent to the very nature of the electoral system in
force. The plurality vote system favours bipartisanship, whereas the
proportional vote system encourages a wider range of partisan organizations.
In addition to the
aforementioned characteristics of the two voting systems, there are aspects of
financing which can diminish the effects of the voting system or increase them.
In Quebec, experts, observers of the political scene as well as certain
representatives of third parties have identified specific provisions of the Act
which, in their opinion, appear to violate the principle of equity, because
they favour the two main political parties.
On November 25 1997, a
designated third-party candidate petitioned the Superior Court in order that
certain sections of the Election Act be declared inoperative. These
sections refer to the reimbursement of election expenses based on the results
obtained at the last election, to the advance on this reimbursement, to the
remuneration of representatives at the polling station by the Government, as
well as to the possibility for a third-party candidate to recommend a deputy returning
officer of a poll clerk of his choice.
The petitioner alleged that the
provisions of the Election Act render the electoral process inequitable
because they confer upon certain candidates advantages that they deny to others
on the basis of their political affiliation. The candidates from the two main
parties, as it were, would have a clear advantage over third-party candidates.
In addition, the petitioner alleged that the provisions in question, by
conferring an arbitrary financial advantage, undermine his right to qualify
and, more generally, debase the voting right of the Quebec citizenry.
Just after the November 30, 1998
general election, namely on December 11, the Superior Court of Quebec
invalidated certain provisions of the Elections Act. Indeed, the Court
considered that the provisions that granted remuneration to the representatives
of the parties having ranked first and second at the previous election
constituted an unjustified restriction on the freedom of expression and the
freedom of association protected under the Charter and gave rise to an
unacceptable inequality among the candidates.
Similarly, the Election Act
provided for the reimbursement of a portion of the election expenses
incurred by the candidates of parties having ranked first and second at the
previous election, regardless of their performance during the current election.
Prior to the calling of the election, these candidates even received an advance
on the reimbursement that they were sure to obtain for their election expenses.
These provisions were also invalidated by the Court, which considered that they
unduly restricted the freedom of expression and created an inequality among the
candidates. The Attorney General of Quebec decided not to appeal this judgment.
Moreover, on October 9, 1997,
the Supreme Court of Canada handed down an important ruling in the “Libman
Case”. Indeed, the Court invalidated the provision of the Referendum
Act and the Special Version of the Election Act for the
holding of a referendum, the effect of which was to prohibit third-party
advertising, deeming that these provisions unduly restricted freedom of
After having held public
consultations during a parliamentary commission in the spring of 1998, the
government tabled in May 1998 Bill 450. This Bill was sanctioned on October 21,
1998, just prior to the calling of the November 30, 1998 election.
New provisions were incorporated
in the Election Act, the Referendum Act and the Act respecting
elections and referendums in municipalities to allow and provide a framework
for certain third-party advertising initiatives.
During an election, be it
provincial or municipal, an elector or a group composed in the majority of
electors can henceforth incur publicity expenses to express its view on a matter
of public interest or to obtain support for such a view or to advocate
abstention or the spoiling of ballots, without however directly supporting or
opposing a candidate or a party.
This elector or group of
electors, designated in the Act under the expression “private intervenor” must
however obtain prior authorization from the returning officers. The publicity
expenses must not exceed a total amount of $300 and a private intervenor is
prohibited from pooling such expenses with another person or group. Finally, an
expense return, accompanied with vouchers, must be filed in the 30 days
following the election.
Moreover, the bill introduced a
new exception regarding the notion of election expenses by allowing any person
to incur expenses of not more that $200 to hold meetings provided that these
meetings are not organized directly or indirectly on behalf of a candidate or a
The same rules concerning prior
authorization, identification of publicity, the prohibition of the pooling of
funds and the obligation to file an expense return apply to private intervenors
during a referendum.
In Quebec, for the most part,
the regulations which apply to political party financing have become
commonplace and are now an integral party of the political culture. Despite the
minor criticism mentioned earlier, the Quebec system for financing political
parties in place.
When this system was first
established in 1977, many feared that it would not work. But Quebec’s
experience has proven that it is possible to set up an efficient and equitable
system based on financing by the people.
In conclusion it is possible to
devise a system for financing political parties that is equitable. Certain
prerequisites are however necessary. A social consensus must exist as regards a
minimal set of regulations that are to be adopted for the financing of
political parties. Furthermore, the Assembly must establish efficient methods
of control in order that the Act be fully implemented. The institution charged
with applying the regulations must be above all suspicion as to its
impartiality. Finally, the effective application of these regulations depends
for the most part on the vigilance of the participants.
Despite the limitations inherent
in any model, it is essential to strive for more equity in matters of political
financing in order to not only promote true pluralism which reflects the range
of opinions, but to ensure the highest level of implication possible on the
part of electors in the political debate and, ultimately, to maintain the
confidence of electors in their electoral system.
Louis Massicotte, “Le financement des partis au Québec. Analyse des
rapports financiers de 1977 à 1989” in Leslie F. Ssidle, Le financement des
partis et des élections de niveau provincial au Canada. Vol. 3 de la
collection d’études de la Commission royale sur la réforme électorale et le
financement des partis (Lortie Commission). Dundurn Press and Wilson
Lafleur. Toronto and Montreal, 1991: 3-47.