How we fund our democracy

Good Sunday Morning,

Elizabeth invites youIt was probably Al Gore that popularized the saying: "It's hard to understand something when your paycheck depends on you not understanding it." Of course our personal morality meter and our need to avoid cognitive dissonance combine to help us rationalize and justify our actions, but this basic human instinct for self preservation nonetheless holds true.

It applied to the purchasing agents at the coal mines that I used to supply with carbide tipped cutters and the engineers at the oil companies that I used to supply with test bits for their offshore exploration on the Grand Banks and Scotian Shelf. But it also applies to NGOs and political parties. In fact it applies to anyone who derives their income, funding or financial resources from an external source, which means pretty much everyone.

The influence does not have to be as overt as the bribes I witnessed in the Cape Breton coal fields or the free booze that flowed for Texas engineers in Halifax bars back in the 1980s. It can be as seemingly benign as being careful not to alienate the lovely people that are paying for the new wing of our library or providing play areas for our children in public hospitals. Funding public services through private donations can be treacherous and the potential for abusive manipulation grows exponentially with the dollar amounts involved.

Their wiki entry describes the Fraser Institute as a Canadian public policy think tank and registered charity, politically conservative and libertarian with ties to the Economic Freedom Network. According to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, Fraser is number 23 (of 100) in the "Top Think Tanks Worldwide (non-U.S.)", number 19 (of 150) in the "Top Think Tanks Worldwide (U.S. and non-U.S.)" and number 1 (of 30) in the "Top Think Tanks in Mexico and Canada". If you visit its "please donate" page you will see that they gladly accept donations of securities or shares.

peace_tower.jpgIt is a practice that Althia Raj wrote about in the Huffington post last month when she explored the challenges our democracy is facing by the ruling of an Ontario Superior Court judge, saying the charity [Canada Without Poverty] should be allowed to "engage in unimpaired public policy advocacy toward its charitable purpose" and that the government had "no justification" to infringe on that right. Justice Ed Morgan struck down the existing law and ordered that charities be allowed "without quantum limitation" to participate in political activity as long as it remained non-partisan.

But when does a charity become a super PAC? In this commentary published in the Star back in June of 2015, Robin Sears writes: "The essence of a campaign finance regime is to level the playing field, to ensure that money cannot buy an election. The sad part is that for more than 30 years Canada had one of the most admired systems in the democratic world. But foolish decisions by a succession of prime ministers weakened it, and Stephen Harper dealt the final blow.

"The sight of billionaires “adopting” a candidate by writing cheques in the tens of millions of dollars is humiliating to Americans today. In Canada, under the current lax rules, we’re increasingly vulnerable to a similar corrosion of our democracy. Today [2015] we have one party that has amassed twice as much money as its peers, using its advantage of power. And in our weakened system the Conservatives can spend it any time they like."

TED.jpgGreens have long championed an alternative approach to financing our democracy. Providing public funding to political parties based on the number of votes they receive in an election is a powerful tool to give control back to the citizens at large. A vote becomes more than a symbolic gesture in a hopelessly unfair First Past the Post election when every single ballot translates into funding for the party of your choice.

During his last term in office, with the power of his 39% majority, Stephen Harper eliminated the $2 per vote funding of political parties and the Liberals have shown little appetite to re-instate it. Instead we depend on tax credits, which favour those with taxable income, to entice people to open their purse. This creates huge pressures for political parties to engage in perpetual fundraising campaigns. Eddie Goldenberg, a top adviser to former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien when the per vote funding was set up, lamented: "Surely there are better ways of engaging with the public than just asking people to contribute money?"

Alas, without the per vote funding even Elizabeth's Electoral District Association (EDA) here in Saanich-Gulf Islands must depend on the generosity of citizens who have the means and can support our efforts to uphold and promote the democratic principles and wise public policy Elizabeth champions across Canada. Our EDA has done this since the last election by mobilizing and supporting the efforts of volunteers through a constant stream of citizen action and awareness building.

Taft.jpgMostly we seek small donations, working on the principle that many hands make light work. If for example every person reading this blog, which I can only write because of your generosity, committed to spending just $10 per month ($2.50 after tax credits) we could stop fundraising locally altogether. But until that happens, we need to rely on Elizabeth's charisma to inspire donors at fundraisers like the one we have planned for October 13th in Saanich. It's a joint event hosted in partnership with our neighbouring riding of Esquimalt Saanich Sooke. Elizabeth will welcome their, by then newly nominated, candidate for the 2019 campaign.

No one much likes fundraising. But to build, improve and strengthen our democracy we must rely on many small and personal donations to fund our efforts. We in SGI feel that we provide value to our donors with our commitment to build citizen engagement and amplify Elizabeth's work. This is critical if we are going to wrest control over our future from the kind of corporate interests that Kevin Taft described in his talk (which is now available online).

It's the people who still believe that common citizens should be the arbiter of public policy that make it possible for Elizabeth to champion integrity in politics. And these people know that until we elect enough MPs to implement things like public financing of political parties, rational carbon policies to fight climate change and fair voting systems, they have to participate in the current system, using every opportunity available, to make it better.

Suzuki_in_NB.jpgNew Brunswickers face one of those opportunities on Monday, as that province goes to the polls. David Suzuki spent two days there to amplify the hopeful message that David Coon and the Greens are offering. New Brunswick is particularly captured by corporate interest and Greens are the only voice willing to stand up in a province where political dissent can literally cost you your job. 

On Thursday Elizabeth addressed the House in the adjournment proceedings with a plea to her fellow MPs to heed the increasingly intense warnings that the effects of climate change are upon us. She quotes from a recent report which concludes that the shifting ocean currents of the north Atlantic threaten the very existence of all marine life in the Gulf of St Lawrence. As the evidence becomes more and more compelling, it perhaps should not come as a surprise that more Canadians than ever support the Green Party.

On Friday Elizabeth was part of a political panel on Power and Politics (at 19:27min) to call out the inconsistencies in the Liberal's response to the court ruling on the Trans Mountain Pipeline review. Now that the courts have determined that the government and the NEB have failed to assess the full impacts of the Trans Mountain Expansion, Elizabeth asks "How on earth can the government ask more of a private sector owner of a pipeline (in the case of Energy East where it asked the NEB to apply the climate test) than it's prepared to ask of its own pipeline."

ottawa-tornado-damage.jpgOn Friday we also saw a tornado rip through Ottawa leaving 100,000 homes without power. Just the latest example of climate breakdown caused by increasing CO2 levels, while Conservative leaders are lining up to oppose even the woefully inadequate carbon tax Trudeau has proposed. Research prepared for Canadians for Clean Prosperity, a group led by Mark Cameron who was a former policy director in the Prime Minister's Office under Stephen Harper, reports the real cost/benefit of effective carbon pricing.

"The research to be published next week suggests that, if the prime minister follows through on his plan to return revenues from the tax to households in the form of carbon dividends, then most people in those provinces would get more money from the federal government than they would pay out in carbon tax," reports this segment of As It Happens on CBC. "What's more, the report says low-income people would benefit the most. According to the report, an upper income family in Ontario could receive about $15 more than they pay out by 2020, while a single parent household in Saskatchewan could receive as much as $1,397."

Notice that the CBC report called it a "carbon dividend", a term that has been championed by advocates of a revenue neutral Carbon Fee and Dividend program including all Green parties across the country. Also putting money in the hands of the lowest income brackets, where it benefits local economies the most, is the guaranteed livable income policies continually championed by Greens. In this TVO interview recorded recently, former Conservative senator Hugh Segal discusses his frustration with the Ontario PC government's decision to scrap the basic income pilot program that he authored.

Both of these examples show how, in a world of cross party collaboration, smart policies can be supported by advocates across the political spectrum. But under our oppositional system of First Past The Post, instead of this kind of fact based decision making, sound policies are often as not condemned to the scrap heap of history by the destabilizing and irrational forces unleashed by the absolute power of false majorities. It's that kind of polarized, ideologically driven, facts be damned, power politics that diminish our chances of addressing climate change before it's too late.

the-enright-files-on-democracy-in-2018.jpgIn this CBC Ideas program, Michael Enright explores the state and practice of democracy in 2018. Among others he interviews Christopher Cochrane, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Cochrane proposes that what we need to do is to actually put forward policies that aren't necessarily deeply ideological but that take seriously our commitment to making people's lives better. It's a theme that Sonia Furstenau reinforced at last Saturday's Pro Rep Rally in Victoria.

Arend Lijphart called it "Consensual Democracy." Sonia called Pro Rep 'Democracy for the Me-Too era'. "They are kinder, gentler democracies" she quotes Lijphart about places that use Proportional Representation to elect their governing bodies. After dispelling falsehoods and imploring both sides of the Referendum Campaign to stick to the facts, Sonia Furstenau calls on us to fiercely defend our democracy.

Sonia recounts how Doug Ford has seized 100% of the power with less than 25% support from registered voters in Ontario by using micro targeted campaign messaging to very specifically and carefully dissected audiences. She recounts that this is an approach Susan Delacourt warned us about in her book 'Shopping for votes' "Parties have learned that rather than focusing on an overarching vision and platform, it's more effective under first past the post to identify what specific demographics of the population want, and then promise to deliver that to them."

Sonia.jpg"Elections are not about bringing us together anymore." Sonia laments. "They are about sowing seeds of disunity and fragmentation. And so while Doug Ford never produced a costed platform, or presented a unifying vision to the voters of Ontario, he did promise buck-a-beer, lower gas prices and tax cuts. When he then passed legislation that cut the number of Toronto's locally elected representatives from 47 to 25 because of a personal vendetta, it was challenged in the courts.

"Ford's choice to now invoke the notwithstanding clause, to order Ontario's MPPs back to the legislature, to force another piece of legislation through, which he can do because 1 in 4 eligible voters in Ontario elected him and he has 100% of the power, is a gobsmacking rejection of the foundations of our democracy in Canada.

"What I fear is that our politics, driven by our electoral system, driven by vote shopping, driven by an increased tendency towards populism, driven by the efforts to win swing votes in swing ridings, our politics is becoming devoid of the kind of leadership that we desperately need right now. We need leadership that lifts us up, that encourages us to look at our world and ask 'how do we make this better'.

We are loosing the type of leadership that holds itself to a higher standard, that recognizes the true burden of elected office, which is that we must put service to our constituents, our province and our people first. We're losing the type of leadership that inspires all of us to want to be in service to something greater than ourselves. We are, perhaps most importantly, losing the type of leadership that brings us together. That encourages us to celebrate our differences, while recognizing our shared humanity. The kind of leadership that roots us in compassion, kindness, empathy and love."

Sonia ends her talk with a heart-wrenching story about meeting a very young Canadian in the buffet lineup on the ferry, the day before she gave her speech. I will not spoil it for you by transcribing it here but if you don't have the time to listen to the whole rally, or even Sonia's whole speech, you must do yourself the service of listening to this small anecdote.

If you are part of the hope of that young Canadian, then attend our National GPC Convention, volunteer for and vote in the upcoming referendum, support Elizabeth and her team at the fundraiser on October 13th, and inspire those around you to reach for a higher standard in Canadian politics. Stay engaged, stay vigilant, stay hopeful.

Have a fine weekend,


"It is our job to work tirelessly for justice, for peace, and for a planet that can survive with a human civilization that thrives. This is the challenge that we take on as Greens." Elizabeth May, October 19th, 2015

This weekly missive is authored by Thomas Teuwen, our SGI EDA coordinator. Opinions expressed are his own. We welcome your comments and feedback. If you were sent here by a friend and would like to subscribe to our weekly email simply click here. You can also go to the archives section of our SGI website to read back issues. And if you are on twitter please join in on this hashtag.

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