Bill C-50: A lost opportunity to eliminate the influence of money in federal politics

Elizabeth May:

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise at report stage to deal with Bill C-50, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act in dealing with fundraising.

I had the opportunity before committee to attempt to make amendments to the bill. Certainly there was excellent testimony from many expert witnesses, particularly from our former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, of ways in which the bill could be strengthened.

The bill generally makes improvements. It is not that it is a bad bill; it is that there are lost opportunities here, particularly lost opportunities in closing those loopholes around what is now known as cash for access.

Let me speak to the bill, and then I will turn my attention to the fundamental problem we have in Canada when we talk about political fundraising. That is a more general conversation.

On Bill C-50, I put forward Green Party amendments and had them voted on, but unfortunately they were all defeated. They may be seen by some as relatively minor, but they matter. For example, one was mentioned by my colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley. I attempted to increase substantially the punishment for violating any of the provisions around notice, publicity, reporting, and so on. Section 500 of the act would be amended to create a penalty of not more than $1,000.

The evidence from Jean-Pierre Kingsley, our former chief electoral officer, was:

The $1,000 penalty for a summary conviction, I found to be low. The entities that would be charged are entities…that effectively have money or should pay more for that. I don’t think there’s anything left that’s a penalty of $1,000 under the statute…we’re certainly not talking about a deterrent. The deterrent of course is the summary conviction, but still there should be a penalty.

In the amendment I put forward, I hoped to see that if the party broke the rules, that it would be dealing with a penalty of twice the amount of what the party raised at that event. That would become a significant deterrent because it would undo all the damage of its event. The party would have to pay twice as much as was raised as a penalty.

I also, like the member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, agree that it is a loophole in section 4 of the act. One does not have to report at all on fundraising and donations made in the course of a national convention. We know a lot of fundraising goes there and should be reported.

The bill certainly does not make things any worse. The problem with this, the notion of cash for access and the way it is described, is that until someone dubbed it cash for access and ascribed to it a label nobody would want, this is how political parties of all stripes have always raised money. The star performer, the leader of the party or someone else who is well-known in the party is is someone people want to meet, comes to an event. That is the draw to get other people to show up and spend a lot of money. I usually like to joke that in the Green Party it is not so much that we have cash for access, it is that I show up in people’s homes for potluck suppers, so our provisions are basically tofu for access.

The situation of political party financing makes setting up a series of rules that cover all eventuality, sort of a mug’s game. I would rather attack this directly. When will we take the leap other countries have and eliminate private financing for political parties? I know that goes contrary to the direction of the previous government, which said it was getting rid of taxpayer funding for political parties but really did not. Taxpayers fund political parties to a great extent in our country. It is just not sufficient to meet the perceived needs of the parties, which is why they go forward and do all these other kinds of fundraising.

Our system of democracy would be cleaner and everything would be much more above board if it were a fair, impartial system of public financing. For those who might not know how taxpayers fund political parties, certainly everyone in this chamber knows, there are very generous rebates for the amount of money spent during an election campaign. If the party gets more than 10% per riding, it gets back 50% of what it spent. Nationally it gets back 60%.

For the party that spends the most on attack ads, for instance, in other words the party that annoys the Canadian public the most with attack ads during the Super Bowl, its rebate is the largest just because it spent the most. The biggest-spending parties get the most back from the Canadian public because that is our Elections Canada rebate rule.

What if we do not do that anymore? What if we say we will just provide a pot of money based on what we have seen on average over the last five elections that the Canadian public has spent on having those elections, what we actually gave to political parties, and develop a fair system of sharing that out? What if we did what England does, what Brazil does, and what many countries do and ban electronic advertising, radio and T.V. for political parties? That is the biggest ticket item in the spending budgets of most political parties during elections, to have money in the bank to run all those ads. What if television ads from political parties were not allowed, but every party was given non-profit, public broadcasting time on a fair and equal basis?

One thing about attack ads that we will never see is someone running for office doing his or her own ominous voice overs. The attack ad bread and butter is that so and so plans to steal babies, that it has been heard here, or so and so beats kittens or something loathsome like that. When people are on-screen, looking at the Canadian public, they do not say things like that. They say that they are standing there because they want to serve the people or their platforms are about people’s lives, their families, and communities. They want to say the positive things when it is their own face.

Public funding and public provision of public interest broadcasting for political parties instead of paid advertisements would save the taxpayers a bundle because we would not be paying back for all that ad time in the proportions that political parties now receive under the Elections Act. We then could also look back at what the provisions were before former prime minister Stephen Harper reversed them.

The fairest and the least cost support of political parties from the public purse was always Jean Chrétien’s innovation of the per vote subsidy. It is an incentive to vote, by the way. I have had people say to me over the years, when this existed, that they lived in a safe riding for the Grits or Tories, a party they did not want. Therefore, the only reason they voted was because they knew the $1.75 would go to the party for which they had voted. That amount changed eventually when the Harper administration killed it. I think it had gone up to $2 a vote, but it was $2 a year to the party that individuals voted for, directed by their votes.

We do not get to direct at all other taxpayer funding of political parties. The biggest one is the rebates for election spending. The second-biggest one is the rebate for the income tax deduction people get, which is so much more generous than donating to Oxfam, or Sierra Club or a church. All of their charitable giving to other organizations is never rebated at the highest level, but to give $400 to a political party costs people $100. Of course, it is obvious why the rules benefit political parties. They were written by people in this place to assist their parties.

Is it not time we pulled the plug on all of it, and not worry about whether someone is meeting with donors in someone’s fancy house or meeting with people at a potluck supper? All of this is driven because we are not willing to bite the bullet and do for our democracy what is really required, which is to take the money out of it and allow the Canadian public, based of what we are already spending, to have election campaigns and funding for political parties directed by a fair and equitable formula.

Bill C-50 can only go as far as it can go. There is always going to be a loophole. We are always going to find out that somebody is a big enough draw that he or she will get donors in the room. Let us not forget that was why Senator Mike Duffy was appointed. He was a good fundraiser because people wanted to write the big cheques to go into the room to meet him. We need to think about what motivates our democracy and get the money out of it by going to the real root of the problem.

I ask my colleagues on that side of the House to bring back the per vote subsidy. It was fair and directed by the voter. Take big money out of politics.

Andy Fillmore – Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Democratic Institutions:

Mr. Speaker, I thank my friend, the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands, for her ongoing care and attention to democratic institutions in Canada.

I would like to dwell on the section of her remarks regarding conventions. Any fundraiser within a convention for which a person walks through a door and pays over $200 to spend time with the class of folks we already have identified would be captured by the new rules. Therefore, that kind of event is not exempt at a convention. What would be exempt under Bill C-50 is the kind of appreciation event for folks who have already paid a convention fee and will be present there.

To that, our acting chief electoral officer Stéphane Perrault said at PROC committee:

There is also an important exception for party conventions, including leadership conventions, except where a fundraising activity takes place within the convention. The convention itself is exempted, but if there’s a fundraiser that meets all the conditions within the convention, then that is caught by the new rules. Again, this reflects a concern to achieve a proper balance and I think it is wise.

Could the member reflect on the CEO’s statement that it does actually capture a good balance?

Elizabeth May:

Mr. Speaker, I have read proposed section 4 over and over again. Perhaps it is bad drafting, which is a terrible thing to say at the point where we are at report stage. However, despite proposed subsection 3, a regulated fundraising event does not include any event that is part of a convention and is organized to express appreciation. Therefore, it could be organized to express appreciation, but that kind of event does indeed give access to key decision makers, which does not end up getting reported and is not open to the media.

Even after hearing the explanation from the acting chief electoral officer, which I have heard before, I am baffled by his position. Of course, I respect him, but in the context of what Bill C-50 is trying to deal with, special access for people with lots of money to key decision makers, the exemption for conventions does not sit right with me. I am hearing what my hon. colleague is saying, but I am not persuaded.