Maxwell A. Cameron: Public allowances for political parties in B.C.? Yes, but with earmarks

Opinion: Public funding should be provided on the condition that our parties strive to become more democratic, with robust and active local riding associations, better management of nomination processes, and training for youth leaders

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The B.C. legislature has convened a special committee to review whether the current system of public funding for political parties should be continued. It should, but with conditions attached.

Political parties play a vital role in our democracy. They provide voters with critical information about the values and beliefs of candidates. They also make democracy workable for politicians by solving co-ordination problems, extending their time horizons, and disciplining their members.

Parties have benefits for society as a whole. Powerful social groups are less likely to want to engage in extra-parliamentary activity if they are well represented in parliament. And parties are good for governance because they help organize legislative life, negotiate compromises, ensure government is accountable, and prevent abuses of power.

Given that parties are essential to achieving, maintaining, and improving the quality of democracy, the case is strong for funding political parties.


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Arguments against public funding of parties feed into narratives about parties as self-dealing and untrustworthy. Yet these sentiments point to problems with political parties that can only be addressed by strengthening not weakening them.

We need parties with strong linkages to society, that have a life between elections, that represent the diversity of our increasingly pluralistic societies, that seek compromises and find areas of policy convergence, and that deter extremist demagogues. For all these reasons we need strong political parties.

The trend in most established democracies, however, is for fewer people to join parties, fewer to feel any identification with parties, and fewer people to trust politicians. This is a long-term threat to democracy.

Can the problem be solved by the free market? Without public funds, parties must solicit donations from private individuals. In the province of B.C. we have wisely chosen to ban corporate and union donations and put a cap on individual contributions. This has not only levelled the playing field, it has prevented the corruption of our democracy — the kind of corruption that is now pervasive south of the border.

A system based on private contributions is not only unfair — because money talks, and people with more money have louder megaphones — it risks skewing politics in favour of the wealthy few and this can lead to policy decisions that increase inequality.


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Does public funding of parties burden voters with costly subsidies for organizations that they do not wish to support? There are lots of services we must pay for whether we like it or not. The case for parties is much like the case for utilities: they supply a public good. It is a small price to pay to live in a democracy.

The corollary of the analogy to utilities it that funds should not be provided without regulation. It is entirely appropriate for public funds to be earmarked for the democratic functions of parties.

Several European countries earmark public allowances to parties. The most widely used earmark is for gender promotion, but there are also funds set aside for youth, education, research, and persons with disabilities.

In the B.C. context, earmarking funds for building relationships between MLAs and First Nations might be worth considering. It is clear that earmarking could be done in different ways — as grants, incentives, or conditions, for example. Earmarked funds would need to be monitored through a reporting system.

Public funding should be provided on the condition that our parties strive to become more democratic, with robust and active local riding associations, better management of nomination processes, and training for youth leaders. Ordinary MLAs should receive a substantial share of public funds. And funding should be used for research and staff to enhance the performance of elected officials.


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Some public funds could be set aside for cross-partisan activities so that members and leaders of diverse political parties can engage in common activities that build consensus around important issues that we seek to depolarize, like reconciliation or climate change.

The bottom line is this: If parties are to receive public funds the public should know what it is getting in return.

Maxwell A. Cameron, a political-science professor at UBC, is the author or editor of a dozen academic books and more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters.

Letters to the editor should be sent to [email protected]. The editorial pages editor is Hardip Johal, who can be reached at [email protected].

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