Money doesn't win elections - all it really does is pollute the process.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

January 6th,2017



Money can’t buy me love. Well at least that’s what Paul McCartney told us. And money couldn’t win Hillary Clinton the US presidency either, even though she spent almost twice as much as her opponent. In fact that flamboyant and wealthy Trump guy also won the Republican nomination despite spending less than any of the other candidates. So maybe he is as good a money manager as he says – or maybe it just takes more than money to win.


Phone banks cost money – do they get the vote out?

Still, running a campaign isn’t free – advertising, phone banks, brochures, and all that jazz. In the 2015 federal election Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper burned close to a hundred million between them with Justin just topping out Stephen. But it was how the money was spent that took Trudeau to a majority win, according to his staff. And chances are he might have won with even less money.

Of course one never knows these things for sure – so the party people, all parties, keep on sending appeals to the faithful in hopes that the cash keeps rolling in. It’s almost as if raising money has become a fixation, a goal in itself, filling some hypothetical war chest fitted with neither bottom nor lid. Yet, as Trump has shown, one doesn’t need all that money to win a campaign.

Advertising takes up a lot of the campaign money, yet the truth is that fewer people today listen to or watch the expensive commercials on the networks, with the possible exception of live sports broadcasts. More folks are now using their PVR to zip past the commercials, or are switching to Net Flicks, Crave, Prime or public broadcasting to get their programming and avoid those annoying ads. For example, I could have missed all the political ads, had I not been covering this topic.


Tweeting has taken over the way people communicate.

And more folks are getting their news on-line or via Twitter and other social media, rather than the traditional newspapers and networks, where the worst they have to encounter are those annoying but less costly pop-up ads. Even radio listeners can now go to ad-free Sirius or other programming and avoid the attack ads and all that other garbage on the AM/FM stations.

This transformation does place more onus on the reader/watcher/listener to discriminate between fake and real news – but that is another issue. The point is that it shouldn’t cost as much to run a successful election campaign as it once did. And that means the spending limits for the political parties should be falling not increasing. Logically, if the spending starts coming down so will the need for all that money that gets raised.

Politics is largely funded by the government – and that means the tax payer. Half of the costs of all the election campaigns are eligible for subsidy. All eligible donations are tax deductible, starting at 75%, whether raised from spaghetti suppers, rubber chicken dinners or straight cash contributions. And the greater one’s income obviously the more valuable the deduction to him/her making it a regressive tax measure,


Money does not grow on trees.

In the early ‘90s Jean Chretien reduced the influence of money in politics by banning corporate and union contributions and slashing the amount which individuals could donate. With these savings, from reduced tax credits, he established a program to fund political parties on the basis of their popularity at the previous election – the per-vote subsidy. After all, a subsidy is a subsidy from a public accounts perspective. But this measure removed potential influence peddling and corruption from a public accountability perspective.

The federal Conservatives typically raise more money through donations than the other parties. So whether it was a strictly political maneuver or he was driven by ideology, Mr. Harper reversed the course Chretien had set by increasing both eligible contributions and election spending limits, and then he axed the per-vote subsidy. And so it is little wonder enthusiastic fundraisers in the political parties started playing the so-called ‘pay-to-play’ or ‘cash-for-access’ fundraising game.

And it is particularly shameful when it is the party in power selling access to senior ministers. Seriously, why would any business person cough up $1000 or more for a few minutes with a government minister unless they expected something tangible in return? There is no question that cash-for-access flies in the face of the electoral financing reforms that Mr. Chretien had enacted, and should be banned or outlawed.


It is the under the table funding that sets in the rot that destroys much of the political process.

Today there is a growing sentiment among Mr. Trudeau’s members and those of the third parties to re-instate the per-vote subsidy. Of course financing that subsidy would be more revenue neutral were the government to once again reduce individual contribution limits, perhaps even lower than before Harper had elevated them. And another upside would be that members of Parliament could use their time to attend to matters more in the public interest than raising money for the next election?

Finally if we care about our federal deficit, since half of the election expenses get subsidized, it is hard to justify current high election spending limits. This is especially true in light of the hard lesson Mr. Trump has just taught us. Victory is not only a matter of how much gets spent on a campaign. Sometimes ideas are more important than money.

Rivers-direct-into-camera1-173x300Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington in 1995.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.     Tweet @rayzrivers

Background links:

Can’t buy me love –   US Campaign Finances Federal Political Subsidies

Per-Vote Subsidy –   More Per-Vote Subsidies –   More Cash

TV Viewing vs Streaming –   Tax Deducibility –   Election Campaign Costs

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1 comment to Money doesn’t win elections – all it really does is pollute the process.

  • Even as a child I remember the anecdotal Madison Avenue aphorism that bad publicity is still publicity. Trump knew how to play that game by making outrageous comments, which were endlessly covered and repeated on news programs, especially cable news because…. they drove up ratings. Estimates of the financial benefit he accrued run into the many millions of dollars – all free advertising.

    Now we have a great uproar over Russian attempts to de-validate democracy. News flash: It has already been in progress through the greed of the media and the stupidity of the voters.