These times that we’re living in, wow. We’re into the last week of May and it’s striking to think of all the things that we’ve seen take place over the past few months, all the changes that have happened and how governments have needed to react. It has been enough to give you whiplash at the speed and breadth of the changes, but it’s all be necessary. But with those changes we’re seeing some uncomfortable stories come to the surface that have created situations that are just frankly odd. We saw a perfect example of that come out on Friday, a story that was a striking collision of the new circumstances with the old politics:
When I saw this story developing on Friday, with the news of the NDP’s application for the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy first breaking, I knew this was only going to get bigger. When the news then broke that the Liberals, Conservatives and Greens were also all doing the same, my suspicions were confirmed that the NDP was not alone in this. It became a story that left many in Ottawa uncomfortable. That then spread to Alberta, where the news broke that the United Conservative Party had also done the same. And I’m sure before this is all said and done, we’ll hear about other provincial parties.
It quickly became the perfect collision of the real issues created by Covid-19 with the rhetoric and views of pre-Covid politics. Ever since former Prime Minister Jean Chretien made major changes to Canada’s political financing laws, there has been a partisan debate around the role of money in our politics. When Chretien eliminated corporate and union donations, put in lower individual donor limits, and instituted the first per-vote subsidy to parties, it changed the way a lot of our politics ran. When you look at how big money and dark money donors’ rule and pervert politics in the US, Chretien’s changes had a much more positive effect, even if it hurt his own Liberal party more than most.
But once that came into place it became a target for Conservatives who would say that “political parties shouldn’t be getting taxpayers money.” They should have to raise it themselves they would say that people shouldn’t be forced to get money to parties they don’t support, even though the system didn’t do that. Stephen Harper ran on eliminating the per-vote subsidy, a naked attempt to kneecap his opponents and advantage his own party, which was far and away the best fundraisers in the country.
In doing so, the argument he used was “parties shouldn’t be getting public funding” and it instantly created contradictions on Harper’s part. He wanted to eliminate the per-vote subsidy, which helped his opponents, but that was far from the only public money that flowed to political parties. Every party get campaign rebates if they meet certain criteria. Those rebates are massive amounts of money and allow parties to repay big parts of their campaign costs. In local campaigns given spending limits, that campaign rebate can pay for more than half of the next campaign to come.
Ironically because of Harper’s ploy to lengthen the 2015 campaign by over a month, he made that worse. By lengthening the campaign by that much, it doubled the spending limits in that campaign. That meant a doubling of the rebates those local campaigns would get and, in many cases, that meant the government of Canada cutting cheques to local campaigns that basically paid for their entire 2019 campaigns without raising a penny. That’s public money that the Conservatives never had a problem collecting. Also remember that Canadian political donations get a 75% tax credit to donors, which is paid for by the Canadian taxpayer. That means on a $400 donation, the Canadian public purse if covering $300 of that cost. Again, Harper never opposed that public money either, despite the public decrees about the evils of public money going to political parties.
That has been the tone of the debate ever since, regardless of how hypocritical it’s made some appear. And that is the environment that this story landed in, which I personally believe is unfortunate. Yeah there is some big hypocrisy in seeing Conservatives in Ottawa and Alberta lining up to get 75% of their staffs’ wages covered given their public positions. You could easily argue that there isn’t much of a difference between getting this wage subsidy today and the old per-vote subsidy back then. It’s still “people being forced to give money to parties they don’t support”, right?
Believe it or not, I’m not actually upset about this news. In fact, this is a good example where pre-Covid political rhetoric collides with the needs and issues of this moment. Does it look bad? Oh heck yes it does, that’s undeniable. In normal times this would look rough for most political parties and would have many tongues a wagging. But political parties have been affected by Covid-19 just like other non-profits out there who depend heavily on donations to operate. And just like those who work for those other non-profits, they shouldn’t be punished with losing their jobs because of this global pandemic. If we agree that this health crisis has required governments to help workers who could lose their jobs through no fault of their own, shouldn’t that mean all workers, regardless of who employs them?
And what exactly is gained by society by forcing those parties to lay off all that staff? Nothing at all, just like with any other job. Some of those people might have enough for EI, but most will likely end up on the CERB, and then the government is paying anyway. So if it makes sense to pay a company to keep their workers employed, surely it makes sense for these workers too. But one caveat to this that I will add comes from something that CBC news pointed out on Friday. The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats confirmed to CBC that they will be topping up employee wages by paying the other 25%. We don’t know about the Greens nor the UCP in Alberta, but it’s a question that matters here. This is a chance for all parties and their leaders to set the example for the rest of the country when it comes to using this program to its full effect. We’ve heard some stories of some businesses that won’t be paying the 25% top up and honestly it would be impossible for our political leaders to call them out on that in any legitimate way.
As normal, we are seeing some trying to play politics with this issue. Three of the candidates for the Conservative leadership have called out their party for this, calling on them to not apply for these funds. That basically amounts to the people mostly likely to be the next Conservative leader saying to the staff that runs their party that they feel they should be laid off, which I’m sure must sting. Also the Bloc Quebecois has come out against this, chiding the other federal parties for applying and saying they wouldn’t be doing the same. The richness & irony of BQ Leader Yves-François Blanchet going to a podium today and trying to paint themselves as virtuous is ugly, but very much on brand for them. The fact is that the BQ is constantly the lowest in fundraising, mostly because they don’t try to. During the years of the per-vote wage subsidy, they lived off that and hardly did any fundraising at all, which became a talking point that helped to kill it. They don’t have to worry about laying off party staff because they barely have an organization at all. Yeah, it’s very rich.
But in the end, I do hope that something good does come of this situation. Like with so many other glaring issues that this pandemic has shone a light on, I hope that some point as we come out of this that the discussion about political financing happens, including a per-vote subsidy. I would point out that if Stephen Harper hadn’t eliminated that subsidy, none of these parties would need to have applied for this emergency funding today. There is something to be said for that, and someday when the time is right, we’ll have that chat. In the meantime, while I share many peoples discomfort with this story, I can live with it. If we’re helping all workers who fall into trouble at this point, we shouldn’t be refusing to help a small group of a couple hundred workers just because of who employs them. It’s uncomfortable and awkward for sure, but like many other things that we’ve done so far, it’s what should be done. And for those who want to try to make political hay from it, I’ll leave it to them to explain why they think those certain people are less worthy of having government save their jobs. I doubt that chat will be any more comfortable than this one.