Harper's funding move is tactically brilliant, politically risky

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National Post, Friday, November 28, 2008

Had the Conservatives been returned with a majority in last month’s election they had every intention of cutting off public financing of political parties, and they would had the means and the muscle to do it over the howls of opposition protests. Now they’re doing so anyway, touting it as part of Ottawa tightening its spending in yesterday’s economic update.

But all three opposition parties, who live on the Elections Canada annual subsidy of $1.95 per vote, were instantly outraged and will ferociously oppose it, which means if they defeat it in the House, the government will fall on a question of confidence.

And Stephen Harper said he was hoping for a more civility in the new House. Forget it, Prime Minister. This is a declaration of war. It’s tactically brilliant, but could prove fatally flawed. Harper does not want an election with the economy sliding into a deep recession and the government falling into a deficit. But he should not assume the Liberals will go into a snap election with Stéphane Dion as their leader. The Liberal caucus will not allow it, and would step in to elect either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae.

The move would save taxpayers about $27 million a year. That’s chump change in $200 billion of federal spending, nothing more than symbolic gesture of Ottawa doing its part. But for the opposition parties, it’s their lifeblood -- $7 million for the Liberals, $5 million for the NDP, $3 million for the Bloc Quebecois, and nearly $2 million for the Greens. The Conservatives get about $10 million based on their current 38% share of the vote, but are much less reliant on the public subsidy than the other parties -- last year the Conservatives raised $16 million on their own, four times as much as the Liberals.

But it’s the Bloc Quebecois, the party that wants to break up Canada, that is the most reliant on the federal subsidy. While its provincial cousins, the Parti Quebecois, are worse than broke and went into the current Quebec election $800,000 in debt, the Bloc is flush with cash. The $6 million the Bloc would receive over the normal two-year life of a minority Parliament is more than 10 times what it would raise on its own.

One of the reasons the PQ is effectively demobilized, as well as broke, is that many of its best people are on the Bloc or federal government payroll, in 49 parliamentary and riding offices. Like the NDP and the Liberals in the House yesterday, the Bloc screamed that the cuts to party allowances were an attack on democracy itself, although to all appearances democracy functioned quite well before parties were subsidized in the 2003 campaign finance reform, which banned corporate and union donations as the tradeoff for the public subsidy.

In the House yesterday, Harper replied to a fulminating NDP Leader Jack Layton that “protecting the entitlements of political parties is not going to do anything for the Canadian people.”

And here’s his closing argument in English-speaking Canada. Should the taxpayers of Canada finance the separatist movement? Answer: no.

But Harper should also beware of what he wishes for. In the toxic atmosphere he has instantly created, his government could fall. And in the ensuing election, in a steep economic downturn, he could lose to either Iggy or Bob.

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