We Need More Money in Politics, not Less

For Canadians who want proof that the chattering classes often resemble sheep, the best example comes from their chronic bleating that too much money flows into politics - a position that always favours existing politicians.

For those not paying attention, Alberta's NDP government has proposed a series of constricting measures. They include caps on spending in provincial elections at $1.6 million for each party and restrictions on party leadership campaigns at just $330,000 per candidate.

To some, this is good news.

Talking heads, columnists, academics and politicians routinely tell the public that campaign finance reform is needed. They mean that less money should be raised and spent on getting the public's attention during elections.

As justification for this clamp, some claim that the billions spent on American elections corrupt the process and politicians. This example, we are informed by north-of-the-border lambs, justifies multiple Canadian government restrictions on what parties, people and groups can spend during elections.

So much confused thinking to shred with so little space, but I'll try.

Let's start with a proper definition of corruption in government: When a politician or civil servant accepts a bribe to change a law, or to award an undeserved contract.

Here's what corruption is not: When candidates and parties accept money to run campaigns.

Fact: Elections, preferably hard-fought contested ones, are the lifeblood of a democracy. Millions of citizens are not cheap to reach, especially in the attention-splintered Internet age.

Of course people donate to parties and candidates hoping that once in power, "their" government will advance their view on the economy, unions, business, the environment or multiple other possible issues. But that's not corruption. And so long as transparency exists in party and candidate financing - who gives what to whom - then the rest of us subsequently can decide whether a later policy change was good, bad, or resulted from a donation.

Now examine the oft-heard opinion that obscene amounts of money are spent during elections in the United States.

In 2012, Mitt Romney spent $992 million trying to unseat the incumbent president, Barack Obama, who expended $985 million.

That sounds like a lot, but with a population of 315 million, both campaigns together expended almost $2 billion, or $6.27 per person. That year, Americans spent nearly 10 times that on dog and cat food - $19 billion, or $60.25 each.

Or correlate presidential election spending with eligible voters in 2012 (215 million people). That's just $9.20 per voter, still far less than Americans spent on their favourite felines and canines.

False notions about too much money in politics aside, campaign spending limits give an advantage to the very people that the restrict-election-spending types claim they want to counter: incumbents, the famous, the rich and the connected.

Case in point: Suppose you'd like to run for the leadership of Alberta's Progressive Conservative party, but are unknown.

With the NDP's proposed $330,000 limit and Alberta's population of 4.2 million, your budget amounts to eight cents per Albertan. With that literal penny-ante effort, good luck trying to beat someone famous, a sitting MLA, or former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney, who has support from the federal Conservative election machine.

Ponder one other fact: Absent spending many millions to run a campaign and pay staff- and that might include providing a stipend to an ordinary Albertan who can't afford to give up her day job for six months to run for politics - guess who has the advantage? Existing politicians and the wealthy.

Democracy is too precious to not spend more money during elections. Anyone who says differently doesn't understand the challenge of overcoming the advantages of fame, wealth and incumbency. Or maybe they're just an incumbent in the political protection racket.

 

Mark Milke

Calgary Herald

 

Mark Milke is a Calgary columnist, keynote speaker and author of A Nation of Serfs?

My event speaker’s profile is available at: E-Speakers: http://bit.ly/1z6SSGK  or Big Idea Speakers Bureau: http://bit.ly/1Lgsc99

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