Between government allocations and partisan donations ​


On Tuesday, February 13, at the Cercle du pavilion Alphonse-Desjardins, professors Marc-André Bodet and Éric Montigny, from the Department of Political Science at Laval University, participated in a round table on the theme of financing political parties in Quebec . They were accompanied by Professor Jean-François Godbout, from the Department of Political Science at the University of Montreal, and Professor Caroline Le Pennec, from the Department of Applied Economics at HEC Montreal. The meeting, which attracted around 200 people, was organized by the Research Chair on Democracy and Parliamentary Institutions at Laval University.

Last October, Élections Québec published a consultation document entitled For a new vision of the Election Act. This law is almost 35 years old. The consultation addresses six themes, including financing.

Remember that in 2013, a reform of the financing of political parties in Quebec came into force. The bill was presented by PQ Minister Bernard Drainville. This reform included capping the amount of partisan donations per voter at $100. Until then, the ceiling had been $1000. The amount of $100 was calculated on the average of donations received by the Parti Québécois.

That said, today, 80% of contributions to political parties come from the state and are proportional to the share of votes received in elections. Before the reform, it was 30%. In 2022, $10.6 million in public funds were paid to official representatives of provincial political parties.

An undeniable democratic advance

From the outset, Professor Marc-André Bodet described the democratic progress represented by the Drainville reform as undeniable. “The constitution of the Parti Québécois and its seizure of power in the 1970s led to subsequent changes which truly transformed the functioning of political parties in Quebec,” he recalls. According to him, political financing is a very important issue. “Strangely,” he adds, “this issue is considered less important than the reform of the voting system.”

According to the professor, we can hope that, through this mechanism of concentration of public resources, we avoid the entry of actors who are at the extremes of the political spectrum. “It can be seen positively,” he said. But it can also ossify the system and allow those already in the machine to benefit from it.”

According to him, parties must find an area that allows both internal participation of members and a feeling of commitment. “This feeling,” he maintains, “must allow parties to be more than agents of the state. Because that’s kind of where we’re heading when 80% of the funding is associated with public funding.”

The Coalition Avenir Québec’s fundraising cocktails are currently in the spotlight. “We are in the middle of a mini-scandal,” underlines Professor Bodet. What is at stake are individual contributions and the influence they can have on elected officials. One hundred dollars is insufficient, in particular to allow new political parties and those in place to offer sufficient partisan activity. The debate should be on an increase in these individual amounts, rather than an elimination or reduction. For me, it is not a problem of influence, but of democratic values and access.

A political science laboratory

During his presentation, Éric Montigny recalled that Quebec has experienced not one but two reforms of the political party financing system, the second being that of the federal electoral law. “At the federal level,” he explains, “the law abolished state funding. In Quebec, we worked in the opposite direction, significantly increasing public funding. The Quebec population has become a real political science laboratory on the two reforms, which have major and different institutional effects. In Quebec, we saw a drop in donations and a drop in fundraising activities.”

According to the professor, each party operates according to its own interests and develops different financing strategies. A study he carried out reveals that established political parties are rather satisfied with the current financing system and do not want to go back, while smaller parties have more difficulty emerging in this context. “The funding system is evolving, while activism is in general decline,” he continues. This phenomenon is observed everywhere.”

A comparable situation in the United Kingdom

In his presentation, Jean-François Godbout compared the situation in Quebec to that in the United Kingdom. “Today,” he said, “more than 75% of financing from public funds is assumed by Quebec taxpayers, a situation comparable to what prevails in the United Kingdom and Spain. Most democracies have both state and popular funding for their political parties.”

Recently, Prime Minister François Legault expressed the desire to put an end to partisan financing. “Is it a good idea? asks Professor Godbout. Several countries have effective measures to limit individual contributions. This reduces the influence of large donors. The danger is that this can alienate parties from their members. This is a complex question whose balance remains to be found. Banning private financing would not be a good idea.”

Caroline Le Pennec’s presentation focused on the financing of the American political system. She first asked if it was true that elected officials are influenced by the people who give them money. Second, will the money have effects on the outcome of the elections, will it potentially change the identity of those elected? Third, what type of regulation can we put in place if we want to regulate the financing of politics?

“For the first part, she indicates, it is very difficult to answer because, generally speaking, we cannot identify the causal effect of campaign contributions on the behavior of elected officials.”

A few years ago, a study showed that members of the US Congress were three to four times more likely to agree to meet with members of an association if they were told in advance that the association had contributed to their campaign financing.

“The more we spend,” she maintains, “the more we risk affecting the result of an election. It is therefore important to regulate political financing through measures, such as spending limits, ensuring that one candidate cannot spend disproportionately and more than others. Other types of measures would include limiting spending or contributions, or limiting public funding of political parties and electoral campaigns.”

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