We believe that funding for political activities should come from everyday Canadians who choose to contribute… not from government.”
These words were spoken by “democratic reform” minister and political pugilist Pierre Poilievre back in 2011 when his government was scrapping a $2 per vote subsidy that political parties had until then received to fund their campaigns.
The subsidy had been introduced by the Chretien Liberals back when that party capped donations to political parties at $5,000 for individuals and $1,000 for unions and corporations. The Harper Conservatives later took things further by eliminating the subsidy, banning union and corporate donations and reducing the individual contribution limit to $1,000 – a move their opponents cynically noted had the effect of significantly improving the government’s financial advantage over its opponents.
The logic behind the subsidy had been that political campaigns still need money – TV advertising and flying the leader around the country aren’t cheap you know – and the new donation limit meant less of it. The money had to come from somewhere, and if not individuals, corporations or unions where?
Or so the argument went.
The Conservatives disagreed, and when they came to power they killed the subsidy. Why should taxpayers pay for the operations of political parties, they argued?
Fair enough. Reasonable people can have reasonable disagreements about whether political campaigning is an appropriate use of taxpayer money with so many other priorities that governments need to attend to.
But if the Conservatives really believe so strongly in this principle – and the scrapping of the subsidy was not, as their critics argued, an attempt to secure their own financial advantage – why do they carry on the long-standing practice of using taxpayer funding for obviously political purposes?
Yukoners were treated to MP Ryan Leef’s latest taxpayer-funded mail-out last week that was dripping with politics. Surely very similar mail-outs went out in Conservative-held ridings across the country.
Such mail-outs fall into one of those grey areas where politicians can hide amidst a certain level of ambiguity to dodge allegations that they are using public funds to further their own political careers.
After all, the success of many government programs depend on the public’s awareness of their existence. And it is reasonable for politicians to keep us apprised of what they have been up to.
But there is a line that is crossed when politicians use taxpayer money for obviously partisan purposes, and the latest offering from our MP falls squarely on the wrong side of that line.
Leef’s mail-out – entitled “Tax Cuts and Benefits for Families” – is ostensibly informational yet blatant political propaganda. It may not sport a Conservative Party logo, but it might as well have.
The tone of the document is very much, “Look at what our party is doing for you so please vote for us.”
Leef’s mail-out uses a blue colour scheme that is conveniently reminiscent of what’s used by the Conservative Party. The words “tax cut” – a favourite party slogan – are highlighted in large lettering on the front page. Rather than referring to the “government,” it makes repeated reference to the “Conservative government.”
It just happens to highlight those policies that the government has made the cornerstone of its re-election campaign – income splitting and the increased Universal Child Care Benefit – and refers to these being a part of the “Conservative plan.”
It even goes so far as to take a swipe at the opposition parties, claiming that “the NDP and Liberals would raise your taxes, take away the… (Universal Child Care Benefit) … and spend billions on bureaucratic programs.”
More subtly it notes that these policies are geared towards “100 per cent of children” and allows a thoroughly flattered “mom and dad” (the so-called “real experts”) to “choose whatever child care works for your families” – a not so veiled attempt at contrasting Conservative policies with the proposals put forth by the opposition parties.
Are these the kind of government programs that needs to be brought to the attention of voters? After all, we taxpayers usually make it a priority to avail ourselves of free money. And a properly completed tax return will lead to a taxpayer receiving most of these benefits anyway, so it is hard to imagine that too many voters miss out on them.
This is not information. It is politics.
The Conservatives are hardly the first to waste public money on political purposes. Voters in ridings with Liberal and NDP MPs no doubt receive slanted mail-outs of their own. This is a practice that has been going on for some time.
But whoever is doing it, the practice of using taxpayer money to promote narrow partisan interests is crass, wasteful, and inappropriate. It should stop. Unfortunately it will require that politicians to rise above their own self-interest, take the lead, and act in the greater public good.
This fall voters should demand that each candidates pledge to abandon this wasteful practice.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.