If there is one principle that is central to the idea of democracy, that principle must be equality.
I get one vote. You get one vote. That’s the theory.
But in practice, it doesn’t work that way. In the real world of politics, people vote, but dollars vote, too. It takes money to win elections. And these days, political parties will do just about anything to get the dollars they need.
The problem is, money doesn’t come free. For the last few years, our union has been speaking out about the close ties between political donations and payoffs for donors. Corporate lawyers, Bay Street bankers, and construction bosses have spent millions bankrolling the Ontario Liberal Party. But they’ve raked in billions in public dollars in return.
In the year since we first published our analysis of political corruption in Ontario’s privatization industry – I call it “legalized larceny” – pressure has been building on the Liberals to do something. This spring, news reports revealed that Liberal cabinet ministers had to raise up to $500,000 a year for the party.
Caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the Liberals decide to change the rules.
This week I went down to talk to Queen’s Park to talk about Bill 201, the Liberals’ new bill on campaign finance. It has some good parts, but it still doesn’t get money out of politics. Reducing the amount you can donate to a party or candidate from $9,975 to $1,550 is fine, I guess. But most OPSEU members can’t donate $155, let alone 10 times that.
Rich people can still buy favours from politicians, but under Bill 201, they get a discount.
Another idea in Bill 201 is that each party should get a subsidy from the public, with the amount based on how many votes the party got in the last election. I disagree with this. Public subsidies make parties less dependent on donations, and that’s a good thing. But they shouldn’t be based on past elections. “If I voted for a party in 2014 but find I despise it in 2016, why should I be forced to donate my public dollars to that same party in 2018 so it can compete against the party I now support?” I asked MPPs studying Bill 201.
I floated a different idea. Why not just allow every Ontarian to allocate $10 per year to the party of his or her choice, paid for by the government, and ban all other donations? Because if votes are equal, why shouldn’t dollars be?
That, to me, is democracy.
I’ve never been invited back to a legislative committee to speak about the same bill twice. This week, I was. Our union has a very interesting analysis of campaign finance and political communication. And we have very imaginative ideas on how to improve both.
Later this summer, I will be going back to the Bill 201 committee, and when I do, I want to take more of your ideas with me. Please read my comments on Bill 201 here. Then send me yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s imagine politics without money. Let’s imagine equality.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union