Opinion

'Stephen Harper vs. Canada': 2004 Case Could Spell Canada's Future

Change flow of money to parties and you control Parliament. Harper's plan for locking in a permanent Conservative advantage.

By Mitchell Anderson, 19 Apr 2011, TheTyee.ca

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Harper's effort to tip election financing towards wealthy goes back years.

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Stephen Harper vs. Canada is not a left wing rhetorical device, but an actual Supreme Court challenge launched by our prime minister when he was president of the National Citizen's Coalition.

His goal? To strike down legal restrictions on third party spending during national elections on the basis that this violated the charter rights of freedom of speech.

It seems that Harper was miffed that wealthy interest groups like the one he represented were only allowed to spend $150,000 nationally on advertising and $3,000 per riding. He was also seeking to strike down a prohibition on election day advertising, and a requirement that campaign expenses be reported to Elections Canada.

The Supreme Court disagreed, stating: "Promoting electoral fairness by ensuring the equality of each citizen in elections, preventing the voices of the wealthy from drowning out those of others, and preserving confidence in the electoral system, are pressing and substantial objectives in a liberal democracy."

Harper-style spending rule won in US

To see what might have occurred to Canada if Mr. Harper had succeeded in undoing limits on how much cash wealthy interest groups could inject into our elections, we only have to look across the border.

Just five years after Stephen Harper vs. Canada was rejected, a similar 2009 court challenge in the U.S. went the other way, leading to a flood of corporate money in the American democratic process.

At the time, President Obama warned "this ruling strikes at our democracy itself... I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest."

The New York Times stated, "The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election."

A poll by ABC News showed that more than 80 per cent of Democrats and 70 per cent of Republicans opposed the ruling, which undid protections to the democratic process that had been on the books since Teddy Roosevelt was president.

These fears were not unfounded. More than $5 billion was poured into last year's midterm elections, dwarfing the $1 billion that was spent on the 2008 presidential race. Almost 80 per cent of the seats that changed hands during these midterms had the victor outspending the loser.

Third party groups such as Wall Street banks and the pharmaceutical industry no longer have to report election spending to the government. This means whoever is bankrolling TV, radio and newspaper ads aimed at affecting the outcome of the U.S. democratic process and contributing to the Tea Party movement can remain comfortably hidden from view. Some observers estimated that midterm corporate donations were flowing to Republicans ten to one over Democrats.

Chart of opposition to US election funding rules

Most US citizens opposed Harper-style election spending rules despite their highest court’s ruling. Source: ABC News.

Harper's bold gambit in 2008

If Stephen Harper vs. Canada had succeeded, we might be looking at a similar situation during this election, and a very different country.

Stephen Harper has shown remarkable interest in campaign financing. His first prorogation of Parliament was triggered by his announcement after the 2008 election that he would eliminate taxpayer subsidies to political parties -- a move that Harper's own former top advisor Tom Flanagan termed "a death sentence for the Liberals," because Conservatives draw from a much deeper reservoir of private and corporate donations.

Sheer survival compelled the Liberals and NDP to seek a coalition government, which Harper sought to fend off by proroguing Parliament.

As the struggle proceeded, Harper accused opposition parties of attempting an "undemocratic seizure of power" after forming a coalition they had not campaigned on.

Likewise, however, Harper had not campaigned on undoing this fundamental aspect of Canadian electoral financing law.

Harper majority will tip funding power to wealthy

There is no such uncertainty in this election. Harper has already announced his intention to eliminate public financing of political parties if he wins a majority.

This would certainly benefit his party since it raises more money than all other federal parties combined.

And if Harper wins a majority, he would no longer have to bother going to the Supreme Court to undo third party spending restrictions during elections. He could finally be victorious in the long battle of Stephen Harper vs. Canada.  [Tyee]

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