Appointment of William Neville as Independent Allowance Commissioner a Step Forward

by Errol Black

Manitoba’s NDP government recently announced the appointment of William Neville as the Independent Allowance Commissioner under the Elections Finances Act.

Neville’s mandate is to establish a public funding process for registered political parties, to replace the previous per-vote subsidy. Legislation established in 2007 provided for a party per-vote subsidy of $1.25 per vote based on election results. Political parties were required to apply for the subsidy. Only the Liberal Party applied. The PC Party denounced the subsidy as a voter tax which caused the NDP to also back away for fear that the PCs would use it against them in the 2011 election.

A formula that would result in an automatic payout would resolve this dilemma. Contrary to the position taken by the PCs and others, including the Winnipeg Free Press, an expanded subsidy system would be pro rather than anti-democratic.

Presumably, the reason we support democracy is because our experience has convinced us that everyone benefits from such a system whether they are active or not, or even whether they vote or not. In effect, we have determined that election outcomes are like public goods, such as national defence or public health measures or a universally accessible health-care system.

The beauty of a public good is that once it is produced everyone gets to enjoy it. Therefore, we believe that everyone should contribute something toward the payment of the costs. If we truly believe that the processes and outcomes of democratic elections benefit us all, then all of us should contribute something to sustaining (and improving) it.

PC leader Brian Pallister rejects a per-vote subsidy on the grounds that it replaces voluntary contributions with coerced contributions, and it will discourage interest in politics. I am not sure how he comes to this conclusion.

In fact, subsidies to political parties should improve participation by allowing them for example to carry out more effective research, design more effective policies, and reach out to the electorate. This should lead to more, not less, involvement.

It is often argued as well that such a subsidy will erode or limit the choice of voters. In fact just the opposite should happen. It could lead to the formation of new parties representing a broader range of views. There is some evidence that suggests that voter interest in elections has diminished because of a convergence of the political parties on the right side of the political spectrum. New political parties could inspire disillusioned voters and young voters who have tuned out. This would help to nourish and sustain a democratic system that reflects the diversity in our population.

Ironically, those who denounce subsidies for political parties often bang the drums loudest for democracy in other parts of the world, like Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea (although they also seem to accept the limited choice of two parties representing right of centre interests and the far right in the U.S.).

In Canada, we have recognized the importance of multiple parties, and have at least three in most jurisdictions, and often more than three. The establishment of a mechanism for the automatic payment of voter subsidies would help strengthen and improve our democratic institutions and practices in Manitoba. This is an outcome that would be welcomed in this province and might very well spread to the rest of the country.

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