Tired of constant campaigns, Harper says he'll scrap per-vote subsidy

DIEPPE, N.B., SUDBURY and QUEBEC CITY — The Globe and Mail

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pauses while speaking during a campaign stop at a vehicle shop in Dieppe, N.B., on April 1, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Stephen Harper is blaming per-vote taxpayer subsidies for causing frequent elections and is promising to cut this assistance if he wins a majority government.

Political parties have in a short number of years become dependent on this public allowance that was introduced at the same time corporate and union donations were banned.

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Chopping the subsidy would hurt Mr. Harper's rivals more than his party. The Conservatives remain the most proficient at grassroots fundraising.

"It is partly in my view this per-vote subsidy - this enormous cheque that keeps piling into political parties every month, whether they raise any money or not - that means we're constantly having campaigns," the Conservative Leader told a campaign stop near Moncton.

"The war chests are always full for another campaign. You lose one; immediately in come the cheques and you are ready for another one even if you didn't raise a dime."

Mr. Harper was almost defeated when he previously tried to scrap this subsidy in 2008, a bid that triggered a coalition between the Liberals and NDP, backed by the Bloc Québécois. The alliance was set to topple his government when the Tory chief temporarily suspended Parliament to save his skin.

The Tory Leader said he would allow a transition period before axing this support. Conservative officials said it might last three years.

Under the public financing scheme introduced by a former Liberal government, political parties that earn at least 2 per cent of the popular vote receive a per-ballot annual allowance of about $2 per vote.

This yearly assistance works out to about $10.4-million for the Tories, $7.6-million for the Liberals, about $5-million for the New Democrats and more than $2.8-million for the Bloc Quebecois.

Mr. Harper said political parties are sufficiently supported by taxpayers without the per-vote subsidy including tax deductions for donations and campaign expense reimbursement.

"Canadian political parties already have enormous tax advantages," he said. "Taxpayers shouldn't have to support political parties that they don't support."

The Conservative Leader said political parties need to take more responsibility for raising their own money from Canadians.

"We've all come to depend on it a lot, including the Conservative Party."

In response to Mr. Harper's announcement, Jack Layton says the elimination of the per-vote subsidy would put politics back in the hands of the rich.

Since 2004, when the subsidy was introduced, the NDP has been prevented from receiving the large donations from unions on which it once relied.

"The question really is: Do we want to go back to the days where money, and those who can finance campaigns, determine the nature of our democracy?" Mr. Layton told reporters during a campaign stop in Sudbury. Ont.

"I don't want to go there," he said. "I think a mixed approach that has people making contributions mixed with some public support gives us a vibrant democracy where big money doesn't have the same play."

In recent years, frequent revelations of scandal involving allegations of fixed bids and influence peddling in Quebec demonstrate the need for public financing, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said.

Mr. Duceppe accused Mr. Harper of trying to hobble the opposition, particularly the Bloc Québécois. The Conservative leader is "not a great democrat," Mr. Duceppe said.

"It runs against democracy. Parties trying to break through, like the Greens, would have practically no means. That guy would be happy with no opposition and no Parliament."

Mr. Duceppe pointed out the Bloc dominated the Quebec electoral map long before the public financing system was put in place.

"If he thinks he will kill the opposition acting this way, I'd remind him in 1993, 1997, 2000 we won those three elections under different rules," he said.

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