René Lévesque has been angry about what he calls the old slush-fund tradition of financing Quebec political parties for even longer than he’s been angry about Confederation. He has been fighting the system for years and when he talks about the rottenness of the old funding habits, the passion in his voice is more powerful than when he discusses any other topic. Thus, it came as no surprise to those who know him that one of the very first pieces of legislation introduced by his Parti Québécois government was a proposal for what may be the world’s toughest law governing political party financing—Bill Two.
But despite the fact that it may well transform the nature of politics in Quebec and end the province’s seamy history of election fund-raising, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the bill. And critics of the PQ now fear that if its stringent provisions are enacted they may be used as a precedent by the government when it establishes the rules governing fund-raising during the forthcoming referendum debate on independence.
So tough are the bill’s restrictions that only voters—not corporations or unions— will be able to contribute to political parties, and every donor giving more than $25 must be identified. The proposed law would restrict political donations all the
time—not only during election campaigns. (Manitoba, for example, also forbids corporate or union donations but only during election - campaigns—which permits the government party to prepare for a campaign secretly.) In addition, nobody can contribute more than $3,000 a year to any political party. The bill is stringent in its definition of a political party, and contributions could be made only to recognized parties.
The main objective of the new bill is to force all parties to do the kind of grassroots fund-raising that has always been the policy of the PQ. And for the old, established parties the challenge is enormous, coming as they do from a slush-fund tradition that was part of Quebec folklore, where donors and the amounts given were kept secret and where big favors were repaid in lucrative government contracts.
Meanwhile, critics of the bill are directing some of their strongest attacks against a section that states that any money paid to propagate or oppose the programs or policies of a political party will be considered a contribution. This has raised fears in some circles that a citizens’ group opposing construction of a new highway, say, would run into severe difficulties when it tried to raise money. Liberal MNA Jean-Noel Lavoie argues that under the terms of the bill even would-be critics of any law could only publicize their views if they were members of a political party. Alex Paterson, a Montreal lawyer who is chairman of the Positive Action Committee, a group fighting the PQ’S language legislation, is also concerned. “It almost says that unless you’re a political party, you have no business opposing the government.” But Paterson is quick to add: “It may just have been sloppy drafting.” Sloppy or not, it has done little to soothe the unease of anglophones in Quebec.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.