Committee witnesses call for B.C.’s per-vote subsidy to be preserved past 2022

By Shannon Waters May 28, 2021

Today is the last day the Special Committee to Review Provisions of the Election Act will accept submissions on the fate of B.C.’s annual allowance for eligible political parties.

Legislation to implement the per-vote subsidy was one of the first bills introduced by the NDP government in 2017 as a means to soften the blow to party coffers resulting from the incoming ban on corporate and union donations.

At the time, Premier John Horgan vowed that taxpayer funding for political parties would not last long.

“The annual allowance that’s provided in our legislation will disappear in four years,” he said shortly after the legislation was introduced. “It’s not permanent; it’s temporary.”

But it will be up to the committee to decide whether the subsidy survives past its scheduled demise in 2022 and, if so, whether any changes to the current system are warranted.

During public submissions this week, most presenters backed keeping the subsidy in place.

Gerald Baier of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions testified that public financing for political parties supports the role they play in the political process. Baier backed increasing the per-vote subsidy over time but expressed concern over the effect a steady flow of effortless cash could have on the way parties operate.

“In the private funding model, parties had to stay connected with their supporters if they wanted to remain financially viable,” he said, noting that overly generous public funding could “detach” parties from “public interests and … the interests of members or supporters.”

Major, well-established parties are the most likely to receive the subsidy, a fact Baier noted could support “cartel-like behaviour” where “parties who are already successful in B.C. politics are finding a way to maintain their success by shutting out others.”

On the other hand, ensuring parties have cash to support candidates could help reduce pressure on individuals to fundraise for their own campaigns, thereby lowering the barrier to entering politics, per Baier.

“Not everybody is a well-to-do lawyer or businessperson in their local community who can rely on all their friends to donate the maximum $1,300 to be able to do that,” he said. “You can have a more economically diverse candidate pool if there is some subsidization coming from the central party.”

Transparency needed if subsidy continues: expert
UBC political scientist Maxwell Cameron also supported keeping the subsidy but encouraged the committee to consider attaching some accountability requirements.

“If parties are to receive public funds, the public should know what it’s getting in return,” he said, suggesting “periodic auditing” of how the per-vote subsidy is spent by recipient parties. Another option could be to require parties to publicly declare how they plan to spend the money in advance.

“Then there can be some kind of accounting for that at the end of the year,” he added. “How was that money actually spent? Did it correspond with what was promised? … I think it could be done in a way that’s not particularly onerous.”

The BC Federation of Labour wants to see the subsidy restored to the $2.50 per vote that eligible parties received in 2018. This year, the subsidy amounts to $1.75 per vote in the 2020 election.

“We also suggest that this amount be indexed to [Consumer Price Index], similarly to the way expense limits are increased under the Elections Act,” secretary-treasurer Sussanne Skidmore told the committee.

New Democratic Party brass make an appearance, ask for a hike
BC NDP president Craig Keating and party provincial director Heather Stoutenburg also appeared before the committee. Stoutenburg noted that Ontario “recently renewed” its per-vote subsidy, which was supposed to end this year, “for the reason that democratic institutions should be sustainable during a period of economic recovery.”

Stoutenburg credited the subsidy with helping the governing party continue outreach activities during the pandemic.

“We stopped fundraising for several months, and we pivoted our activities to making sure that the public was fully aware of the critical information that was out there surrounding Covid and programs that the government was able to offer,” she said. “We were able to do that work thanks to, in large part, the allowance.” Political fundraising efforts stopped for several weeks in the spring of 2020.

The NDP brass want to see the per vote subsidy bumped up to $2 per vote and indexed to the CPI in future years.

Opponents deem subsidy ‘political welfare’
Only a handful of presenters opposed the subsidy, but they did so passionately.

The BC Libertarian Party is “vehemently against per-vote subsidies and believe they should be cancelled immediately,” according to leader Keith MacIntyre. The very existence of the per vote subsidy shows “a bit of the immorality of the large political parties,” according to MacIntyre.

“It’s our belief that if a political party cannot function on the donations from their party members, they shouldn’t be relying on taxpayers to fund their party, in particular between elections,” he told the committee.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation was last to address the committee. Spokesperson Kris Sims dubbed the per-vote subsidy “a form of political welfare” and called for its cancellation.

“It goes to political parties to enact their partisan behaviours,” she said. “We don’t care if it’s the B.C. NDP, B.C. Liberal Party, B.C. Greens, the Conservatives or, frankly, the flying monkey party. Taxpayers’ money should not be going to political parties at all.”