OUR ILLEGAL FEDERAL ELECTIONS
MACEEAN’S OTTAWA EDITOR
Most of our lawmakers become lawbreakers in the very act of getting elected because they do not publish accurate statements of their campaign expenses. Who does come across with the big money required? And what do they get in return?
A FEW years ago a provincial party leader, out of office, started a one-man campaign long before any election was announced. He stumped his province with a series of give-’em-hell speeches that took the hide off the party in power and cast some aspersions on the status quo in general.
When the election was called and a campaign fund had to be raised the party collector ran into trouble. Big contributors were cool, he found. They hadn’t liked those radical speeches.
“I’ll fix that,” the collector said. He spoke to the party leader. The speeches were toned down; the purse strings were loosened. The party lost the election but not for lack of funds.
I don’t want to say which party it was. This could have happened equally well to either Liberal or Progressive Conservative. There is nothing to choose between them in their methods of party financing; both get approximately the same amounts from approximately the same sources.
I don’t think this story is typical, either. I know several provincial leaders who would, I’m sure, throw out of their offices any man who tried to tell them what not to say. In the federal field I have never heard of such a thing being attempted.
But though it may not be typical the story is true, and even that is a disquieting thought in an election year. It illustrates with brutal clarity a moral dilemma of Canadian politics, one that causes deep worry and heart-searching among thoughtful members of parliament. They believe in the democratic process; they believe in the party system; most of them believe with all sincerity that they are serving the public as best they can. But they can’t help feeling doubts about the political funds which are part of the system’s very foundation. Voters may well share their concern because, directly or indirectly, we voters pay for the political funds in the end. Even more important, the methods of raising and spending campaign funds represent a real and growing threat to our democracy.
Both major parties are now collecting their war chests for the federal campaign they expect this summer or fall. It will be the most expensive campaign in Canada’s history—every campaign for the last twenty years has been the most expensive in history. This time the major parties between them will need about eight million dollars, give or take a million or two.
They’ll get perhaps five millions of it in Quebec and Ontario, and another million or so for the central funds in the other eight provinces. (Of the eight “smaller” provinces, British Columbia and, lately, Alberta are able to raise their own requirements for either party. The rest are heavily subsidized from Toronto and Montreal.) The rest of the campaign funds—nobody really knows how much the grand total is—will be collected locally in the two hundred and sixty-three ridings, or put up by the candidates themselves.
Where does the money come from?
A considerable fraction of it, probably more than half, comes from big corporations which may have little or no direct business connection with the government. These are the chartered banks, the insurance companies, the steel companies, the mining, the pulp and paper, the automobile, the oil companies, and so on.
How much they give to each party is a well-kept secret, for they don’t like to show favoritism. Some years ago a Montreal Liberal called on one of the banks and got a sealed envelope. He was delighted to find it contained fifty thousand dollars, twice as much as he’d expected. Later he got a frantic telephone-call from the banker:
“You’ll have to bring that back. I gave you the wrong envelope.”
“You go to hell,” said the Liberal, and hung up.
Nowadays the differential would be more likely to run not in favor of the Progressive-Conservatives but in favor of the well-entrenched Liberals, but at this top level the two parties probably do about equally well. Each thinks the other gets more, but I’m inclined to think, after questioning donors
and recipients on both sides, that both are wrong on that point.
At the second level of contributors are the contractors, the people who actually get government business. These are the heart and soul and spinal column of provincial party funds. They also contribute to the federal campaigns, but less lavishly. As a rule these donors make no pretense of impartiality they give what they think is expected to the party in power, and take oui insurance with the Opposition.
“What you try to do is to give an appropriate amount,” one man confided. “You don’t want them never to have heard of you; you want them to remember who you are when you go to see them. But you’re no more than small fry anyway, so if does you no good to give more than other people your size. Two thousand is no more good to you than one thousand.”
Third category of donors to campaign funds are the people who give to individual candidates in the ridings. Most candidates have to raise one third to one half of their campaign funds and a few raise the whole amount. They get the money from small business shops, trucking and taxi firms, local factories, professional men. At this level a typical donation would be two hundred dollars.
I suppose I should mention a fourth category, the one politicians tell you about with most eagerness. These are the individual party members who contribute five or ten or even fifty dollars to help their chosen party or chosen candidate to victory. But if you question an honest MP he will admit that these contributions, though welcome out of all proportion to their size, add up to only a tiny fraction of the money he needs and gets.
Now a more important question: What does the contributor get in return? Does he get his money back? If so, how? If not, why does he keep on contributing?
There is no evidence that the big contributors, the corporations of national importance, receive or expect anything like a full, direct return on their campaign-fund investments. Gold-mining companies may give more to the Conservatives because they resent Liberal policy on gold; other industries or individual companies might favor the Liberals because they like government policy, or hope for a policy that they will like. But, in the main, what they expect is a favorable climate or atmosphere foibusiness, which they would count on getting from either the Liberal or the Conservative Party. They are, in effect, contributing to maintain private enterprise and the two-party system.
Contractors expect or at least hope for a more direct and tangible reward, but in the federal field they don’t always get it. A good many federal contracts are let by tender, and the lowest bid usually gets the job.
“Anybody who gives money to the federal party, and hopes to get it back, is a fool,” one veteran politician said. By way of illustration he told of a recent situation in Quebec:
“A fellow down there is a first-rate contractor but he’s a Duplessis man, everybody knows it. When this federal contract came along, some Defense Production job it was, this Duplessis man takes a careful look at it and puts in a really waterproof bid—not too low to look irresponsible, but just barely j high enough for a good firm to break even and maybe make a small profit.
“So~*-he got the job. Liberals are screeching and screaming and saying something should be done, but there’s nothing to be done, Low bidder gets the job.”
Some MPs have been a little slow to grasp this principle on Defense Production contracts. Not long ago a Liberal member wrote indignantly to a j Defense Production official to say that ¡ two of the contractors on defense projects in his riding were known Conservatives.
“I am notifying you so that you may take them off your list,” he concluded.
The official turned the letter over to C. D. Howe: “Maybe you’d like to answer this letter yourself, sir.”
“I certainly would,” said Howe. They haven’t heard from that MP since.
Nothing infuriates Defense Production so much as mention of a “patronage list,” which they swear they have never seen. John Dickey, Howe’s parliamentary assistant, put the figures on Hansard last month—871 contracts of which 855, or about ninety-eight percent, were let by open tender. The rest were special secret jobs such as the radar stations now being built in co-operation with the U. S.
Normally, even on these jobs, the secret work is given to some big wellscreened company like Canadian General Electric, but the general contractor is required to call tenders for subcontracts and let the department see the tenders, to make sure the low bid gets the job. In the case of the radar stations, for which the U. S. is paying about two thirds of the cost, American anxiety for speed led Ottawa to omit calling for tenders and allot a few cost-plus contracts. Stories that all these contracts went to Liberals are denied with great indignation.
Maybe there wouldn’t be so many of those stories, though, if campaign funds were raised in a different way. And not all departments are as sensitive about ; patronage as Defense Production.
Old - fashioned MPs see nothing wrong with that—instead they bemoan the fact that so many departments,
such a high fraction of federal contracts, have been removed from the field of patronage. They believe, in the immortal words of the pre-Confederation Premier, John Sandfield Macdonald, that “we must support our supporters.” Also in the equally immortal words of one-time Public Works Minister Israel Tarte: “Elections are not won with prayers.”
Other MPs, probably a majority of both parties, detest patronage and deplore their own need for it. They wish with all their hearts that party funds could be raised in some other way, that parties could find some escape from this deep recurrent indebtedness to a relatively small group of big contributors.
What baffles them is how to do it. To every plan for limitation of campaign spending, the same baleful rejoinder is made: “How are you going to make it work?”
It’s not enough to say “Pass a law.” We have a law now, and remarkably little attention is paid to it. It’s a doleful paradox but it is true that most elections to the House of Commons are illegal. The great majority of our lawmakers become lawbreakers in the very act of being elected to make the laws.
If this were not so there’d be no secret about election costs, no difficulty about computing them. The Canada Elections Act requires every candidate to furnish a complete and detailed statement of all his expenses, which is published. Any candidate who knowingly makes a false declaration is liable to a two-thousand-dollar fine and two years in jail. Yet MPs readily admit that accurate statements of campaign expenses are the rare exception.
Some years ago it was suggested that campaign funds be limited to ten cents a voter, and a Nova Scotia Liberal was appalled: “That would give me only thirty-five hundred dollars. I want to say you just can’t run an election in my county for thirty-five hundred.”
Costs have quadrupled since then but in 1949 that same MP formally declared his total expenses to be only $1,067.70.
There are in Nova Scotia several seats the Conservatives know they can’t win, and they waste little money trying. But they found in 1949 that even “token” campaigns cost them three thousand dollars each. Without that much, candidates wouldn’t accept the nomination. Men of experience in both major parties say it costs between eight thousand and twelve thousand to stage a real campaign in a typical Nova Scotia seat. Yet the three Conservatives who won declared expenses averaging just over three thousand. One Liberal who carried an expensive urban riding put his down as five hundred and seventy-five dollars.
In Ontario a Liberal got sixty-five hundred from the party treasury, thinking that would be all he’d need. The campaign cost eight thousand. He had to borrow fifteen hundred dollars from the bank to pay the extra bills. Officially, though, his total expenses appear as $2,909.69.
“I don’t like it,” a troubled Conservative said. “I’ve never before in my life put my name to a document that wouldn’t stand examination.”
Some MPs explain that their official statements contain “all the costs I know anything about,” but they admit other people spent money for them. Far from being an excuse, this is another violation of the Canada Elections Act. Section 62 of the act expressly forbids any campaign outlay by anyone except the candidate’s official agent.
But the commonest illegality of all, the one which is virtually universal in both the major parties, is the hiring of cars to take voters to the polling places.
Section 73 of the act forbids hiring, paying for or promising to pay for in whole or in part any form of vessel or vehicle to convey voters to or from a polling station. Anyone doing so, or taking such payment for use of his vehicle, is liable to a five-hundreddollar fine and a year in jail.
This law is ignored all over Canada. There may be local exceptions, but I do not know of any constituency in which cars are not hired by the Liberal and Conservative candidates. All kinds of excuses and devices are used, such as
deferring payment until the day a Lev the election or having it made by somebody else, but the law is drafted carefully enough to cover every imaginable evasion. The plain fact is that both parties break the law, openly and consistently.
In most parts of Canada those are the only violations of the law that are still openly practiced and tolerated by honest men. But in some regions, and certain ridings within those regions, other old and nasty practices survive.
“I draw a line at the Ottawa River,” said one party organizer. “West of it,
with a few local exceptions, political machines are reasonably cheap and reasonably honest. East of it, in Quebec and the Maritimes, they are expensive and corrupt.”
For instance, the old custom of dishing out free liquor has pretty well died out in most provinces. But in the Maritimes both parties still put a large item in the budget for rum, and in Quebec for whisky blanc. One recent Maritime by-election, in which the winning candidate decided he’d hand out no rum and no cash, was regarded as a revolutionary departure from
the long-established tradition.
As for handing out cash, most of the money nowadays goes to so-called leaders and organizers. Trying to pay individual voters for their votes is a practice that has become almost obsolete. But here’s a story one Maritime Conservative tells on himself:
He was running in a by-election a few years ago and, on the Saturday night before election day, the Liberals went into a slum ward handing out twodollar bills. He heard about this, so on Sunday he went out there himself to call on people.
“I heard the Liberals are giving you two dollars for your vote,” he’d say. The voter would nod, and the Conservative would go on: “The damned cheap skates. Here, give it back to me and I’ll give you four dollars.”
Not being very quick at mental arithmetic the voters thought (at least, the Conservative thinks they thought) he was doubling the Liberal bribe.
“And it worked,” the story concludes triumphantly. “We didn’t win the election but we did carry that slum ward.”
Few candidates are so indiscreet as to get mixed up personally in that kind of operation (or at any rate, so candid as to admit it). Not so few are those who deliberately shut their eyes to what is done by obviously disreputable agents.
A common proposition runs something like this: Old Joe Blow, here, is the man who really knows how to deliver the Umpteenth District (or the Ruritanian vote). Just give old Joe five thousand dollars and leave the rest to him. You don’t have to know anything about these things, you don’l want to mix in dirty politics; just leave it to Joe.
In nine cases out of ten the only candidates nowadays who fall for this line are the gullible rich. The sophisticated politician will have found oui long ago that Old Joe delivers nothing at all—that he puts the five thousand in his pocket, plus perhaps the additional two thousand that he exacts in the final week “or else we’ll lose the whole Umpteenth District.”
It’s Quicker When Crooked
In the tenth case out of ten, or maybe the hundredth out of a hundred, Old Joe is a different sort—not a relatively harmless old fraud who lives by separating fools from their money, but a real and competent criminal. Given the right time and place (they’re diminishing, fortunately) Joe can deliver a good deal. Any good organization, honest or crooked, keeps an up-to-the-minute list on election day showing who has voted and who hasn’t. The scrutineer’s job i:to keep that intelligence flowin'steadily to party headquarters.
In the last hour the honest organisa tion proves its worth by knowing when to go after and whom to let alone, among those who still haven’t voted. The crooked machine has a quicker way. It sends out squads to vote the names themselves.
In one election in the Thirties the Anglican Bishop of Montreal, the late Right Rev. John Farthing, turned up at the poll to find his vote already cast. That was the time the votes cast in this riding outnumbered, by several thousand, the total number of voters on the list—a simple feat if Joe can bribe the deputy returning officers and either buy or beat up the other party’s scrutineers.
But that was eighteen years ago. I don’t suppose there are a dozen ridings left in the whole of Canada where the same kind of thing will go on this year. The Joes cancel each other out, and so are not worth what they cost, and so both parties are dropping them.
Yet the cost of elections is rising, not falling. Where then does the money go? And why does it still go so much faster in Quebec and the Maritimes, with their “expensive and corrupt” machines than it does in the rest of Canada?
It goes because more and more people, in more and more places, insist on being paid more and more money for work they once did for nothing. Take scrutineers. There are still candidates who say they can find volunteers who are willing to sit all day at a polling station, keeping track of who has voted and sending lists back to headquarters. But most MPs admit that nowadays these essential workers have to be paid. In Ontario they can still be got for five or six dollars each. In Quebec they get ten or twelve.
In Ontario, even though you do have to pay your workers now, you aren’t expected to hire any more than you need. In Quebec you’re expected to hire the customary number, or more. For instance it is wise to employ a “checker” or messenger at each poll, for six dollars, and a poll captain to direct the getting out of the vote, at forty or fifty dollars.
It’s the same all the way down the list of election expenses. That’s why a Quebec MP can show you accounts that include “not one cent for graft,” and still run to twenty-two or twentyseven thousand dollars. The same campaign, two hundred miles farther west, would cost a little more than half that much.
But enough of these invidious comparisons. The serious fact is that election costs are rising in all parts of Canada, and everywhere for the same set of reasons.
“I still get my ward chairmen to work for nothing,” an Ontario MP said with just pride. “You need four or five of them in a city .riding like mine— fellows who really know the district and can take charge. Most candidates have to pay them five hundred apiece.”
But even that man, like almost everyone else I talked to, had an item in his campaign budget for “nonsalaried help.” Bluntly, this means the remuneration of the “volunteers,” the people who like to have it thought they are working for pure love of the party, but who like also to get some tangible token of the party’s appreciation.
“You’d be astonished,” one organizer said, “how many people nowadays expect to be paid. Well-to-do people, sometimes. Often what they get is chicken feed to them—but they still take it, and like it.”
This tendency is not confined to individuals. It also applies to whole industries and occupations, including the somewhat self-righteous one to which I belong. Politicians of both parties complain bitterly of being overcharged by Press and radio for election publicity.
They say publications in all parts of Canada charge their very highest rates, sometimes rate-and-a-half, for election advertising. Radio stations charge the rate they normally quote for the best listening time, regardless of what time the political broadcast or spot ad goes on the air. One excuse offered for this policy is that political accounts are not classed as good credit risks, and in some local situations that is certainly true. National advertising, however, is placed and guaranteed by agencies of impeccable standing, yet the top rates are charged just the same.
“I estimate the two parties pay at least one hundred thousand dollars each, over and above the normal price of the space and time they buy,” said a man who has settled many such accounts in the past twenty years. “I don’t resent it so much from the papers that are opposing our party. But when
we get the same treatment from our so-called supporters—and some of them are the most rapacious of the lot —it really burns me up.”
Needless to say the local candidate pays the same kind of rate to the local media of publicity. He pays high for other things, too. Halls that normally rent for fifty dollars suddenly cost two hundred. Shabby stores, vacant for months and begging on the local realty market, cost around three hundred dollars to rent for campaign committee rooms. And, worst of all, he’s expected to hire more of everything than he really needs, for fear of offending people by refusals.
“These last two elections I’ve had fifty percent more people than I had any use for,” a Maritime Liberal said. “Maybe I’ll have a good man in a certain polling district, man who really knows his job. In comes his next-door neighbor and says, T’d like to work for the party this time, too; been a Liberal all my life but never worked in a campaign before.’ What can you say? You have to make them think they’re doing you a favor—though they expect to be paid, don’t worry. And they don’t know how to do anything, they just get in the way.”
The British Obey the Law
This tremendous inflation of cam. paign costs, even for quite legitimate purposes, has got politicians more concerned with this ancient perennial worry than they have been for some years. “It’s got to stop,” said a Quebec MP with desperation in his voice. “It’s rrot so the man who puts a pitcher of water on the platform table expects to be paid five dollars for that.”
There are several ways in which we could try to stop it. Theoretically, at least, it could be done by law.
We might impose a ceiling on party expenditures throughout the country. That’s what the United States has done. Their two parties are forbidden to spend more than three millions each, or three quarters of the probable figure for Canadian parties. Since the cost of the 1952 campaign in the U. S. has been estimated at seventy-five millions for each party, it appears that the United States law doesn’t work well.
We might do as Britain does and limit expenses to so much per voter in each riding, plus a flat sum for the national campaign. (In Canada the national campaigns cost a bit less than a million for each party.) This does work in Britain, but the British are a more law-abiding people than any in North America.
Also, how would you ever fix a uniform rate to cover a prairie riding where any candidate is comfortable with three thousand, and a Quebec urban riding where each party normally spends thirty thousand? It’s hard to see how any such law could be enforced.
But even with the law as we have it now one or two steps might be tried.
First, politicians might take their courage in both hands and decide to wage a legal campaign. No more hired cars. Let the real friends of the party lend their cars free, as some do now; if those won’t carry all the voters let the rest walk. That decision alone would save as much as five thousand dollars to some candidates.
Second, both parties might undertake a little plain ordinary economy. In 1949, for example, when they spent half to three quarters of a million apiece on publicity, the outlay included great wads of propaganda material for use in the ridings. One MP told me he used to have to sneak out to the city dump at midnight, in the last week of the campaign, to feed into the incinerator the unopened bales of worthless publicity which had arrived during the day from party headquarters.
To take a smaller but even more spectacular example, in 1935 a party leader’s national tour could be run for twelve hundred dollars, which R. B. Bennett, for one, paid out of his own pocket. The railways provide each leader with a private car and charge him nothing but the actual cost of the food consumed and the wages of chefs and stewards. Yet in 1949 one leader’s national tour cost nearly twenty thousand. The cost of living hasn’t risen that much.
Candidates on both sides might remember that they don’t need to compete with each other dollar for dollar, only vote for vote. Dollars don’t necessarily get votes. Indeed, some people doubt whether they even help. And that brings us to the third step that could be taken:
Recruit party workers who are willing to work for the party, not for money. The minor parties have proved it can be done.
At a committee hearing in 1938 a Liberal backbencher said ruefully: “I know the CCF followers have the apostolic zeal that they’ll do anything for nothing, hut we haven’t got that in the old parties. The apostolic spirit has faded away, unfortunately, and I don’t imagine it will ever come back.”
Even the CCF is not entirely free of the general embarrassment about party funds. At the CCF convention last summer one resolution demanded “public disclosure of all donations to campaign funds in excess of two hundred dollars.” Someone pointed out that several people gave more than that to the CCF’s own coffers and might not like their names printed. So the resolution was amended to affect “donations in excess of five hundred dollars.”
But, with that minor and amusing exception, the CCF has a pretty clear record. They collect their money almost wholly from individual party members in small amounts. These small contributors want all the books examined publicly so they can see where their money went. The CCF in 1949 ran one hundred and seventy-nine candidates and elected thirteen of them with a total campaign expenditure of $248,053.07. That is the figure they publish, and their MBs earnestly affirm (as Liberals and Conservatives do not) that their official statements are really accurate and complete.
Social Credit in 1949 ran eighty candidates for about sixty thousand dollars. This year they may run a great many more and they may, with two provincial governments in power, get a piece of the big money to do it with. But up to now they too have run cheap but effective campaigns.
Both parties have been able to do this because they can summon volunteer help. They get on without advertising, without hiring cars, with a bare minimum of committee rooms and similar equipment. Instead they have willing workers who believe in the party’s program and are willing to do something to bring it to reality.
Every shred of evidence indicates that in this country the believers in free enterprise vastly outnumber the socialists. If only a fraction of these believers had the socialists’ zeal for their own beliefs, the old parties would have more free workers than they’d know what to do with and their advertising and radio time would be offered to them free.
If politicians could manage to rouse that kind of enthusiasm in the people who vote for them the problem of campaign funds would disappear. But until they do, it looks as if they’ll have to go back every four or five years for another eight or ten millions. ★