Free money means bad politics

Whatever you think of Michael Moore, the millionaire filmmaker who dresses like a blue-collar shlep, you can’t deny his popular success. He directed the most lucrative documentary of all time, Fahrenheit 9/11, and three other liberal polemics in the documentary top 10. 


The other two political movies in the top 10 are liberal, too: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Bill Maher’s Religulous. There is not a single conservative political documentary in the top 100.


Documentaries are the least of it — far more common are political allegories pretending to be entertainment. Well, a conservative advocacy group called Citizens United wanted to change all that. Just before the U.S. presidential primary season in 2008, it released a documentary called Hillary, making its case against Hillary Clinton, who was then seen as the shoo-in Democrat candidate. But the U.S. Federal Election Commission ruled ads promoting the movie were campaign expenses, and restricted them, like all corporate electioneering has been restricted for decades.

It was a simple question that turned the U.S. Supreme Court around this time: would the FEC try to ban Hillary if it were a book, and not a movie? The FEC’s lawyer, trying to be logically consistent, told the court “yes.” That startling answer was enough to push the majority of the court against the law, and now U.S. corporations are not only allowed to produce partisan movies, but to spend money campaigning directly, without having to set up political organizations.

The response to this ruling by political partisans and labour unions has been apoplexy. Their monopoly on campaign money has just been opened up. The reaction from the mainstream media has been negative, too, which at first seems odd coming from journalists who typically cheer decisions to broaden free speech. But it’s about losing a monopoly: media pundits have always enjoyed unfettered political speech, but now they’ll have to compete with private sector punditry. Talk about a marketplace of ideas.

All of which should make Canadians jealous. Our election finance laws have always been designed to keep amateurs out — something Stephen Harper went to court to overturn when he ran the National Citizens Coalition. But today he presides over a law that bans corporate and union donations to parties, limits personal donations to a minuscule $1,100, and imposes severe restrictions on third-party advocates, as if ordinary Canadians are third parties in their own democracy.

This has created two tiers of political speech in Canada: those in the elite list of official political parties, and everyone else. But it’s more than the censorship of ordinary Canadians. As a quid pro quo to parties for cutting off their ability to raise funds from corporations and unions, parties now get a government subsidy, on top of whatever funds they raise.

So Greenpeace can’t run campaign ads, even with its own members’ money. But the Green Party of Canada can, despite not having won a seat — and taxpayers send it a cheque of nearly $2 million a year. The Bloc Québécois has all but shut down its fundraising. It doesn’t need to convince Quebeckers to support it any longer; its separatist campaigns are amply funded by all taxpayers.

This subsidy doesn’t just disconnect parties from the population they claim to represent. According to a study by University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, Harper’s former chief of staff, easy money positively encourages over-campaigning and fuels the constant threats of election in Ottawa. The value the parties place on this free money can’t be overstated. It was Harper’s proposal to eliminate it that prompted the opposition parties to band together in 2008 to try to topple his minority government. Nothing else outraged MPs like the threat to their own political pogey.

Parliament won’t democratize political speech, and our courts have been tolerant of our archaic laws, but technology is innately democratic. When YouTube videos go viral overnight, Facebook groups can sign up 200,000 activists in a week, and bloggers can command more readers than newspapers, how much longer can political speech really be monopolized by the official political guild?

Ezra Levant is a Calgary lawyer and author. He can be reached at [email protected].

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