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Ginny Roth: Small-donor political fundraising is good for democracy


American conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg set off a small online skirmish this past August when he said in a CNN interview: “…small donors are one of the biggest problems for democracy, for the GOP. Because…large donors actually have a strategic view about moderation, who can win, who can’t. Small donors really are just venting their spleen with their credit card.” It’s not just Goldberg bemoaning the influence of small-donor fundraising strategy on our body politic. Canadian writer Justin Ling published a paper this year with the Public Policy Forum attributing our troubling political polarization, in part, to the same phenomenon. 

Indeed, small-donor fundraising is an increasingly powerful force in Canadian politics, not only because it’s proven to be an effective strategy for those who excel at it, but because changing rules and norms at the federal level have made it a political necessity. But Goldberg, Ling, and other critics are wrong. Not only is the small-donor approach far preferable to the clearly less democratic alternative of our recent past (and sometimes present) where wealthy donors exchange money for influence, but its relationship to principled politics makes it a better bulwark against corruption than any ethical rule or guideline. 

In Canada, we can analyze different fundraising cultures in real time because we’ve got both. First, let’s consider the federal dynamic. An elite-driven fundraising strategy, which targets corporate donations, major donations from wealthy individuals, or both, was the driving force in federal Canadian politics until very recently. It wasn’t so long ago that Canada’s corporate power brokers had ready access to whatever major political party was in power—the Liberals at the peak of this period—and in exchange, those same major donors would fund the party’s next election campaign. It’s not that regular people didn’t donate to political parties, it’s just that their donations made very little difference. Parties courted wealthy donors, and it was understood that if you won power, you would make it a priority to return those donor’s phone calls. Canadians mostly put up with this. After all, institutional trust was high, and a returned phone didn’t necessarily result in a favour paid. But after years of grift, the sponsorship scandal was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and as conservative populists channeled anti-Laurentian sentiment into a new political movement, the Liberals struggled to adapt. 

Stephen Harper understood that Conservatives would need to draw a line in the sand to match a new demand for ethical behaviour between politicians and those who sought to influence them. His government brought in various democratic reforms, including a Federal Accountability Act, which, from a policy perspective, continues to make it harder for elected officials to dole out access in exchange for favours.

But that wasn’t all. The Conservatives understood that changing laws and regulations wouldn’t be enough. Canadian politics needed a culture shift. The Chrétien Liberals (responding to political pressure) had recently changed fundraising rules to prohibit corporate and union donations at the federal level, but political parties were still thinking about fundraising in terms of “stakeholder relations” (i.e., what private interest is likely to donate the maximum amount allowable in order to get close to my party and a potential future government?). Harper’s fundraising strategy set out to change that by trying to raise smaller amounts of money from way more people. In charting a two-step path to a majority government, Conservatives learned to play a volume game. It’s not that some wealthy Canadians wouldn’t donate the maximum amount, but fundraising success ultimately came from thousands and thousands of small donations from regular Canadians, in Goldberg’s words “venting their spleens”.

Harper’s success became Trudeau’s, who understood he couldn’t leap from third party to government without mimicking the Conservative party’s modernization efforts. In fact, by the time they beat Harper’s Conservatives, the Liberals were beating the Tories at their own game, taking small donations digital. A decade late, Pierre Poilievre has outmatched them all, bringing together principled policy commitments, compelling communication, and digital engagement in a potent fundraising offence, blowing other parties out of the water.

The federal shift in fundraising culture was not inevitable. Indeed, Canada’s biggest province took a darker path. While Harper was bringing in democratic reform, Ontario Liberals were learning that big labour had as much money to throw around as big business did. The Working Families Coalition, a group of Ontario’s public sector unions, contributed millions not just to Ontario Liberal party war room budgets but on third-party advertising campaigns too, helping first to defeat Ernie Eves and then to keep the Liberals in power for a decade. During that time, public sector unions negotiated the best compensation and benefit deals they had had in years.

By the end of McGuinty’s tenure, even he was growing concerned about the province’s finances, so while some union donations continued to flow, the Liberal cabinet was instructed to meet tough fundraising targets, not by appealing to regular people, but by hosting events with big donors. Eventually, embroiled in a cash-for-access scandal during Kathleen Wynne’s tenure as premier, the government was forced to change Ontario law, banning corporate and union donations. This could have been an important turning point. 

Unfortunately, the Ontario PC leader at the time, Patrick Brown, opted to take advantage of a “loophole” in the new legislation, keeping up the old fundraising strategy instead of taking the opportunity to break the PC party of its addiction to big donations. A couple of years later, after forming government, the Ontario PCs leaned further into the past, increasing donation limits, and allowing MPPs to attend their own fundraisers once again.

Now, the provincial government is facing down its own version of a cash-for-access scandal, and as the Ontario Liberals try to rebuild, leadership frontrunner Bonnie Crombie is bragging to members about her fundraising chops—not because she has a compelling, ideological vision for Ontario which motivates individuals to scrape together some of their hard-earned cash and donate, but because developers and other corporate interests think she has the best chance of winning and want to make sure that their business interests are protected under a future Liberal government.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could prefer the latter political culture to the former, especially if one’s interest is in enhancing democracy. Jonah Goldberg is an otherwise very thoughtful pundit, so I can only attribute his misguided comments to a pattern I’ve observed among similarly wise commentors of a certain age. These critics legitimately lament lost institutional trust and the decaying ethics and intellect of the elite, but instead of questioning what elites did to lose trust, they lash out at the people who won’t grant it.

Justin Ling, and some others who have since commented on his report, tend to recommend a per-vote-subsidy in lieu of a return to big donor strategies. This approach is certainly preferable, but taxing Canadians more to fund political causes they don’t believe in seems like a rash measure given the federal status quo works so well. Critics of small-donor fundraising don’t trust little old ladies and their credit cards to determine whose political success ought to be funded. But if our next prime minister is going to feel he owes something to someone, wouldn’t you prefer it be Agnes from Thunder Bay? Even if she is venting her spleen?

Sean Speer: Shocking pro-Hamas, anti-Israel rallies lay bare the limits of Canadian pluralism


As Palestinian supporters continue to organize themselves in different Canadian cities to effectively demonstrate in favour of Hamas’s abhorrent attacks on the State of Israel, the inherent tensions and limits of pluralism have been laid bare for everyone to see. 

Pluralism is a key part—arguably the key part—of Canada’s conception of itself and our common citizenship. The country’s basic promise is one of peaceful co-existence. Our institutions, norms, and practices are set up to accommodate a multiplicity of viewpoints and persuasions concerning the most fundamental questions about justice, human flourishing, and what constitutes the good life. 

Pluralism is also a key—arguably the key part—of my own worldview. Although, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more comfortable in my own thinking about these questions, I’ve also grown less comfortable with the idea of imposing my answers on others. Our own limitations (what Kant referred to as our “crooked timber”) invariably constrain the individual pursuit of truth. The public square should therefore be a crowded, complicated, and contentious marketplace of ideas. The state must resist imposing a singular conception of truth on the society. 

Yet pluralism cannot be an open-ended promise either. Just because our ability to discern the truth may be imperfect and incomplete doesn’t mean that we should give into an empty relativism. Some ideas are bad and wrong. We cannot permit our pluralistic commitments to provide license for those who reject our society’s basic values or even wish to do it harm. Pluralism cannot be a one-sided surrender to illiberal and reactionary forces. 

We’ve witnessed in recent days these tensions and limits inherent to Canadian pluralism. While most of us mourned and lamented the inhumanity of Hamas’s terrorist attacks on Israel, a small minority among us have defended and even celebrated them. These individuals and organizations have relied on Canada’s promise of freedom to countenance and glorify the indiscriminate violence of a group designated as a terrorist organization by our own government. 

There have been pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the country that have effectively affirmed Hamas’s terrorism. The videos from these pro-Hamas rallies in cities such as Mississauga and Montreal have been shocking. It must be said that rallies in support of a terrorist organization that has carried out a systematic campaign of killing women and children are incompatible with Canadian values.

Meanwhile, groups such as the Muslim Association of Canada and National Council of Canadian Muslims (which according to online records have received more than $1.34 million in federal funding between them since 2018) may be more careful in their messaging, but they’re still ultimately equivocal about what the world has witnessed. Their tendency towards “two-sideism” and other prevaricating devices have obscured the extent to which they implicitly affirm Hamas’ narrative. If in the face of overwhelming evidence of brutality and cruelty against Israelis your first instinct is to lament “the tyranny and terrorism of the Zionists” or criticize Israel’s democratic leadership, you’ve for all intents and purposes exposed your true character. 

Which it must be said is fair enough as far as some pluralistic protections go. One can oppose the current Israeli government or even critique the State of Israel itself and of course still find him or herself able to avail Canada’s protections of freedom of conscience or expression. We cannot and should not police one’s thoughts per se. But it certainly doesn’t mean that radical groups are entitled to taxpayer dollars or that individuals who cross the line from reasonable disagreements to the promotion and glorification of violence shouldn’t face sanction. 

These basic observations shouldn’t in and of themselves be controversial. Our commitment to pluralism must be uncompromising up and until it comes to undermine the basic security and stability of our own society. As my former boss Brian Lee Crowley has often said: “[we cannot permit] our list of freedoms to become our suicide note.”

Drawing these lines is of course complicated. Our default assumption must be highly permissive. Just because an idea is controversial or at odds with the majority’s views isn’t a reason to exclude it from the public square. The health of our society is measured in part by our willingness to protect ample space for such views. Imposing parameters around the public square therefore comes with great risk. Those parameters can be misapplied, misread, or even wielded by those whose primary goal is to constrain ideas that don’t match their own preferences. Just because it’s hard, however, doesn’t mean that it’s a task that we should shrink from. 

There are perspectives that should rightly be denounced, marginalized, and precluded from receiving public dollars. Even if one is squeamish about laws and policies that criminalize acts like the glorification of terrorism, there ought to be a minimum agreement that we have a collective responsibility to condemn such behaviour in order to effectively raise its social costs and signal to those inside and outside of our society that our pluralism isn’t a license for depravity or violence. 

Canada has essentially bet its future on pluralism. As our population gets more and more diverse, the multiplicity of views will grow and pluralism will be crucial for managing our diversity. I think it’s a good bet. Unlike some conservatives, I’ve tended to disagree with the instinct to mock Prime Minister Trudeau’s assertion that “diversity is our strength.” I think it’s broadly true. But if our pluralism isn’t principled, if it doesn’t involve some limits, then diversity will cease to be our strength and may eventually become the source of our undoing.