I’ve always had a special interest in emergent political parties. For years, I watched from the sidelines as both the Federal Green Party (GPC) and the Ontario Provincial Green Party (GPO), grew their support. Democracy is also an important issue for me, and I have often lamented that our democratic system has become beholden, to a great extent, to political parties. Elizabeth May, the GPC’s leader, likes to remind Canadians that political parties aren’t mentioned in our Constitution, and she takes exception to Prime Ministers who behave as if Members of Parliament are working for him.
Our current reality is, though, that if you’re running as an Independent, best of luck to you, buddy. Independents rarely have the ability to break into provincial or federal parliaments. Those that do often do so because they were removed or removed themselves from an existing political party while sitting in parliament (Bill Casey and Chuck Cadman come to mind). The successful Independent must have a very high profile amongst the local electorate. Usually, such individuals will already have been wooed by one or two or three political parties anyway.
Political parties can bring resources to bear to assist with winning elections. They have a greater organizational structure than most Independents can bring together, and since parties are constantly fundraising, in theory there will be a revenue stream available between elections to assist with raising one’s local profile. Parties are also subsidized by governments in various ways. It’s different in every province, but Federally Jean Chretien left two things as his legacy: a maximum cap on tax-deductable donations (made by persons only; not corporations or unions; tax-deductable only if you pay income tax, though); and, a per-vote subsidy payable to political parties.
The per-vote subsidy has taken a lot of abuse throughout Canada lately, particularly back at the time of the so-called "Coalition Crisis", as it was Stephen Harper’s desire to remove the per-vote subsidy which some claim drove the NDP, Liberals and Bloc into each other’s arms. Some see the per-vote subsidy as publicly funding political parties. Well, it is that. But a much larger source of public funds for political parties is clearly the tax-deductable personal donation, where an individual who donates, say, $400, will receive $300 of that donation back from the government at tax time. Personal donations can be made up to $1,100 (I believe), and the rebate, while it gets lower in terms of a percentage the higher you go, is still pretty darn healthy. Certainly, your money goes further when given to a political party rather than to a registered charity or a church, because taxpayer’s money actually does most of the giving.
Here in Sudbury, in the last election, the Conservative Party fielded an excellent candidate who had the other candidates here shaking in their boots. With the monetary juggernaut of the Conservative Party behind this educated, intellectual, articulate (in both languages), local Conservatives had high hopes for success. This guy had also been out knocking on doors for months leading up to the election. We Greens in particular were somewhat in awe of this Conservative candidate, because he had probably the greenest personal credentials of any of the candidates. In fact, I know that he inspired some in our Party to look at ways of leaving a lighter ecological footprint in our community. What we couldn’t figure out was why this guy was running as a Stephen Harper Conservative.
Well, all of our fears proved to be collectively unfounded, for on Day 1 of the campaign, this candidate went on CBC Radio and said that he disagreed with the Minister for FedNor’s decision to not fund the Centre for Mining Excellence in Sudbury. The Minister at the time was former Conservative Leadership candidate-now Minister for International Trade, Tony Clement, he of "Sudbury = Valley of Death" fame. Anyway, long story short here, this excellent candidate was muzzled by his Party, and participated only in one local debate (the one hosted by the Chamber of Commerce), and he and his campaign were pretty much eclipsed by the Liberal-NDP mudslinging on the ground. Yes, there remained up a good number of Conservative signs, but on Election Day he finished 10% points back of the winner, and in third place with 25% of the popular vote.
Later, when Pundit’s Guide published the financial metrics for the Sudbury riding from the last election, I was surprised to see that the Conservative Party had spent $85,730 on their campaign in this riding, which was the most of any Party. The winning NDP dumped $71,329 into their campaign here, while the Liberals spent just over $50,000 to contest the results. In contrast, the Green Party spent just a little over $5,000. On a per-vote level, that means that we Greens spent only 7-cents for every vote we received here in Sudbury, while the Conservatives were at $1.15, the NDP at 96-cents and the Liberals at 68-cents. All in all, I think we Greens did pretty well to receive 7.6% of the vote on a small budget.
The point I’m trying to make here is: money talks. Now, I’ve never asked the former Conservative candidate just what it was about Stephen Harper’s party which attracted him, given that to me, at least, he didn’t seem particularly ideologically predisposed to agree with much of what the Conservatives seem to stand for. This guy, though, would have been better off as an Independent, or better yet, a Green candidate. But the fact is, there is no way that an Independent or Green campaign could have spent half of what he did as a Conservative to help get him elected. Maybe he was hoping that the monetary machine of the Cons would help him get elected, and then he could begin changing Conservative minds from a position of authority within his own Party. I don’t know, I’m just speculating. But clearly, if he wanted to be an MP, he had a much better chance of getting himself elected as a Conservative, rather than as an Independent or even a Green.
Our current system is clearly set up to favour the larger, existing parties over Independents and other parties. We Greens know just how hard it is to break into the system. I’m sure that we lose out on a lot of credible candidates, who instead choose to run for other parties. Would recently-elected Provincial Liberal Glen Murray fall into that category? I’m sure that there are others, because, frankly, our Party just doesn’t have the profile and resources to be a viable vehicle for the political aspirations of many who otherwise would embrace our policies and positions.
Sometimes, small parties can come out of nowhere and capture the attention of the public. We saw that recently with the rise of the ADQ in Quebec, and lately with the surging Wildrose Alliance in Alberta, which is now out-polling the existing Progressive Conservative provincial government under Ed Stelmach. Usually, when situations like this occur, it means that a small party, usually a new one, is able to capitalize on two things: a certain zeitgeist, or feel for the times, where a Party’s one or two defining issues is more in tune with the public than what the other Party’s have on offer; and, probably more importantly, money money money. Small parties aren’t going to go anywhere without money, and that’s the reality.
So, our system is set up to favour political parties over Independents, and larger existing political parties over smaller ones, and those which appeal to the wealthy with their policies over those who appeal to the poor. That’s our current political reality, and to me, it’s a crying shame, because it does a disservice to what we believed "democracy" to be. Our system, with its lack of flexibility and with its financial favouritism of the rich over the poor, isn’t about the rule of the people for the people, which is what we thought democracy was supposed to be all about. Instead, our system perpetuates the notion of the vested interests of the rich ruling over everything else. Our system is broken in fundamental ways, yet why would we trust those currently in power to fix it, given that they are the primary beneficiaries?
In this kind of environment, is it any wonder that small political parties with fewer financial resources have a very hard time being heard, despite whether they have a few good ideas or not? Since you pretty much have to belong to a political party nowadays to have any hope of getting elected to office, it can be difficult sometimes to find a "home" in one of the bigger parties given their ideology and/or baggage. Sometimes, this leads like-minded individuals to form a Party of their own, with the hopes of capturing the interest of other like-minded individuals to join them. Of course, it helps a lot if those other like-minded individuals have some good financial resources to assist with getting the message out. Anyway, this is all part of the way that democracy appears to play itself out in Canada.
In Prince Edward Island, though, new political parties apparently face a hurdle unlike anywhere else in Canada. Before an election, a new political party must pony up a $1,000 "registration fee", just to be recognized as a Party. Once recognized, of course, they won’t have to pay again, so existing Parties aren’t affected by this scheme. For a small and new political party, $1,000 can represent a significant financial outlay, and really disadvantages a Party at election time. Clearly, PEI has made the already stilted game of Canadian political democracy that much more egregious with this unnecessary hurdle which only further impedes democratic discourse.
Apparently, back in 2007, the Green Party of PEI paid this fee and went on about their business. Now, though, the Green Party of PEI, under the Leadership of Sharon Labchuk, has gone on record in protest of this undemocratic move by the entrenched parties in her province. Here’s the kicker: Labchuk and the Greens aren’t protesting the fact that they paid this fee back in 2007, they are protesting the fact that a new political party, the Island Party, is now being forced to pay the fee!
That’s what standing up for democracy is all about. Labchuk and PEI Greens see that an injustice is occurring, and they are no longer content to sit by without saying so. As a political party, frankly the Greens have nothing to gain here, and much to lose. They’re giving publicity to a start-up political party which one day might experience success and create issues for the Green Party. No, what’s happening with the PEI Greens is much more altruistic, and certainly demonstrative of Green values in action. Regardless of political gain, Labchuk and the PEI Greens are doing what’s right. They are putting their own values ahead of partisan politics. And that’s something that we don’t see much of in this day and age, given the structure of our political system.
To me, that’s what democracy is all about: doing what’s right. Kudos to the PEI Greens for recognizing that we, as Canadians, benefit from a plurality of voices to be heard from when we go looking for leadership and good government in this country.