It’s a rainy Saturday in Vancouver, and I’m not really enthralled by the book I’m supposed to be reading. So I decided to sit down at the computer and start typing. No apologies for length. It’s pretty much just an edited, write-it-down-as-it-comes to me stream of commentary.
Cash for access. Pay to play. It’s remarkable how a clever turn of phrase has the power to both illuminate and distort our understanding of things. And to change how we judge the world.
As I write, the public clamour to change the rules of political fund-raising intensifies, encouraged by indignant newspaper editorials, righteous political columnists and the usual radio talk show callers. Already one premier, Kathleen Wynne of Ontario, has yielded to the pressure and promised reform. I have to say I think it is inevitable that other political leaders will, sooner or later, fall into line. That is to be regretted. Sometimes, even in a democracy, the people are wrong. The changes being demanded will make our politics more complicated, more expensive, and more unwieldy. They will do nothing to improve the quality or honesty of political decision-making. And they will do nothing to curb whatever corruption actually exists; rather, as I will explain later, they are more likely to encourage it.
The way Canadians practice democracy is the envy of most of the rest of the world. The rule of law is respected. Our politicians have integrity. While it’s unlikely that most people could demand a one-on-one meeting with the Prime Minister, it’s actually not difficult to meet with your local representative, whether that be a municipal councillor, a member of the provincial legislature, or an MP. The views of crackpot conspiracy theorists and Internet trolls aside, corruption is the rare exception, not the rule. Political office is neither bought nor sold. Nor are political decisions. To repeat something I said earlier this week, the fact that we can all remember the instances of corruption is evidence of how little there is.
Until a few months ago, political fund-raising events - dinners, coffee parties, picnics, summer barbecues - had been a feature of political life in Canada (as in most democracies) for as long as anyone could remember. Some of my own earliest political memories are of political fund-raisers. When I was in high school my father, an active volunteer in the federal Liberal Party, was often the principal organizer of the annual federal Liberal leader’s dinner in Vancouver. Once or twice we were trundled downtown to spend the night of the dinner in a hotel so that my parents didn’t need to get a babysitter for us. The lure was that we might - if we were lucky - meet a politician or two. I met the first Prime Minister Trudeau that way. As this discussion about political fundraising has escalated over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about that meeting, which was probably 1971. Regrettably, I did not use the occasion of our meeting - with just his wife, my parents, and my sisters in the room - to try to lobby for a highway construction contract or tax change. I suppose I could be excused for being sixteen and not realizing this is what you’re supposed to do when you’re in a room with a politician. But I am quite sure of this. If I or anyone else had suggested to Pierrre Trudeau that he could have been in some way bought by the fact that someone had paid a few hundred dollars to attend a dinner in his honour, he would have laughed himself silly, to the point where you were soon made to realize what a fool you were even to think that this was possible.
Is there a difference between a crowd of a thousand in a hotel ballroom and a gathering of a dozen people in a private home? Undoubtedly. But it’s actually not a difference that matters. Again, I’ve been in both those rooms. I’ve been at the very back of the ballroom, and watched as politicians worked the room, moving from table to table, shaking hands, having their picture taken, and from time to time moving off to one side to have a few private words with someone. I’ve also been in rooms where the gathering was much smaller, perhaps ten or a dozen people in lengthy and close conversation with a candidate or elected politician. To be clear, these events are rarely ever open to the public - they’re not advertised in the local newspaper or radio. That’s because the goal is to raise money, not convene a public consultation session. And in case you want to know (because you’ve never been at one of these events), they are not actually occasions for influence-peddling. Rather, there’s usually some cheerleading for the guest of honour or the party, some speeches, and sometimes a question and answer session. Oh, and of course, the rubber chicken. At these events the politician is making his or her case in front of a room of supporters. She is asking and hoping for their continued support. He wants their help in the upcoming election. She is trying out new policy proposals. He is praising his cabinet and caucus colleagues. She is poking fun at the opposition. He is scaring the room into fearing the prospect that the other party will be elected. In short, it’s politics.
And no matter whether there are ten people in the room or 1500, everyone has bought a ticket (or is there because someone else did.) Everyone, in other words, has paid to play.
Is all of that corrupt? Again, I know how many voices have lined up on the other side of this question, but the answer is no. Not even close.
In fact, these events are indispensable to participatory democracy. They bring people into the process. They are not, of course, a substitute for the obligation every elected official has to be directly and personally accountable to their electorate. No politician leaving a fund-raising dinner thinks that their job of working for the public has been discharged by a night of politicking with party faithful. But sometimes they are cheered by the fact that they have supporters, people who are willing to part with some of their own hard-earned money to help ensure that the next campaign will be adequately funded.
The argument is made that political fund-raising events offer privileged access to the rich, and exclude those without means. That argument confuses partisan politics with public duty. Partisan politics costs money, and the money has to be raised somehow. Fundraising events are a time-honoured, and perfectly honourable way of doing that. The morning after the dinner, the politician is back at work in their community, as accountable to those who disagree with her as to her supporters.
The argument is made that this money buys influence and favourable decisions. Well, this is the kind of argument that sloppy thinkers (and opportunistic opposition politicians) make because it’s a clever way of implying that politicians are corrupt without actually saying it. That’s the mischief in the phrases pay to play and cash for access. Where real corruption exists, it’s a crime. It should be investigated and prosecuted. But at the same time, thereare dozens and dozens of examples of politicians who made decisions directly contrary to the interests and wishes of their principal supporters. Think Gordon Campbell and the carbon tax. Think NDP governments when they have legislated public sector unionworkers back to work. These things get done because politicians govern according to their conception of the public interest, not in order to curry favour with their donors. Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course. But at the same time, do you think that politicians could long hold office if they did not have supporters? People willing to knock on doors, post leaflets, erect signs, update voter id lists, call voters, make coffee, open their houses for coffee parties, drive people to and from polls, scrutineer the count, and yes, donate the money necessary to support this work?
And yes, the money is necessary. Our political process is already more than adequately subsidized by taxpayers. Elections Canada - the bureacrats who audit and enforce the mind-numbing assembly of rules that govern our electoral process - spent $443 million on the last election. On top of that the two major parties spent approximately $40 million on their respective campaigns. A great deal of that money is subsidized by taxpayers through the political contributions tax credit. But not all of it. Fund-raising is still necessary to pay for the balance.
I complete reject the suggestion that our political process should be paid for entirely by taxpayers. I believe that the work needed to obtain financial support directly from citizens is an excellent way of ensuring that political parties actually pay attention to citizens. (Every citizen is a potential donor.) In addition, most models I have seen for heavier public subsidy of political parties tend to encourage what I would describe as a change-averse political process. All the parties that have traditionally done well get most of the funds. It’s harder for new parties to break in. That’s not healthy. So some fund-raising is necessary.
Should we ban political fund-raisers? Well, let me ask this question: how would we do that? Let me be a lawyer for a moment and ask whether it is possible to define what a political fund-raiser is in terms that can be readily understood by those expected to comply with the law, and easily enforced by officials and courts. Would it include an event where there is no actual ticket price payable ahead of time, but where phone calls are made after the event to solicit donations? Would it include an event such as, say, a local Chamber of Commerce or union local or environmental organization dinner, where the featured guest is an elected politician and there’s someone in the crowd meeting everyone, asking for their business cards, and planning to call or email them the next day to see if they would support the politician? What if you really do want to buttonhole a politician and you can’t get anyone to organize a small group dinner - because they’re against the law - and so what you do instead is to pay the amount necessary to secure an elite membership in a local charity, which guarantees you a seat at the head table at the next event, so that you will sit beside the politician?
I can assure you that all of these things happen now, and they will continue to happen. If you’re actually worried about whatever it is you think is meant by “pay to play” then please don’t fool yourself into thinking it will all somehow go away if some more rules are made. This is what I meant earlier about the risk that the cure may actually be worse than the disease - if the wrong rule is enacted, the problem (if it is one) won’t go away, it will just pop up in a different, possibly more pernicious form somewhere else.
And I haven’t even offered up the most difficult example with the proposed prohibition. What’s the difference between a typical political fund-raiser and the dinner at the annual constituency meeting or party convention? Again, you’ve paid to participate in the event - you’ve paid to join the party, and you’ve paid the fee to attend the convention, and you’ve paid the special ticket price for the dinner, and may event have paid the additional fee for the special pre-dinner party attended by all members of caucus and Cabinet. Isn’t this starting to look a lot like whatever it is that people mean when they say “pay to play”? Are we going to ban politicians from attending constituency meetings or party conventions?
The direct and intended consequence of any prohibition of this kind of fund-raising will be to isolate politicians from people. To cut them off from their supporters. Indeed, to cut them off from everyone. It’s ridiculous.
Another suggestion for ridding politics of the scourge of fund-raisers is to enact a donation limit of, say, $100. Well-intentioned, I suppose. So how does that work? If you’re a constituency MP or federal candidate who needs to raise $200,000 to pay for the cost of an election campaign, that means you need to find at least 2,000 people willing to donate $100 to your campaign. I won’t say that’s impossible. I will say it’s close to impracticable. How will you find those 2,000 people? Remember, you can’t hold any public events for that purpose because you don’t have the money to hire the meeting room and you can’t charge admission. Do you knock on doors? Come up with some clever viral online strategy? Or do you hire ten people to mount an organized telephone and online solicitation campaign to try to raise the funds? Let me say this: people who have never had any experience in campaigning for, or holding elected office, often think all of that is easy. In my experience, having done it and watched it for nearly two generations it’s actually very hard. Forcing politicians to fund-raise this way will probably mean that they spend way more time fund-raising than they do now. Is that a good thing? I don’t think so.
There are some who wish our politics was less expensive. While I sympathize with the wish, it’s not realistic. There are already limits on campaign expenditures. I don’t know whether their impact has been studied, but I’m guessing experts would say it would be hard to mount the kind of campaign which actually reaches voters without spending amounts in the general range of current campaign expenditure limits.
Lastly, I will say again what I said earlier this week. At some point, high becomes too high. But the cure is not to legislate prohibitions on this important feature of our democratic politics, but rather to impose strict standards of disclosure. Public disclosure of donors and amounts. This is a situation where, to use the old saw, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Don’t add yet one more set of rules to our already burdensomely complex electoral processes. Don’t require taxpayers to pay for still more legions of Elections Act officials. Tell the public how much money is being donated and by whom. And let voters be the judge of how much is too much.