The politics of money

By Michael Lashley

It would be indecent of me to compare the place of money in the politics of Ontario, Quebec or anywhere else with the place of money in the very personal and domestic context described in the calypso sung by the Mighty Sparrow, “No money, no love”.

Out of that same sense of decency, I have purposely used the word “place” so as not to debase the political and love contexts by speaking of the “role” and “importance” of money.

Having been deluged with the revelations of the charges and ongoing investigations related to corrupt relationships involving “businesspersons” and politicians of many varied political stripes in Quebec, Ontarians are now digesting detailed revelations in the media about the fundraising activities of their provincial Liberals.

While all political parties engage in a wide variety of fundraising strategies, our attention is being focused on the reliably confirmed figures of how much money Liberal ministers, both senior and junior ones, are pressured to raise for the party: from $200,000 to $500,000 per year!

And, at the same time as we contemplate the tension and stresses which those financial demands inflict on the frontline politicians, we also have to consider the consequences of most of those political donations. The ministers receiving the donations must feel compromised. They cannot escape the “feeling” that they are, in one way or another, indebted to their donors. And, most of all, the donors must also have expectations that their financial contributions should bring them some material advantages and benefits.

So that, in addition to the intoxicating feeling of holding political power and to the social prestige that comes with it, money becomes a decisive factor in the battle to win or to retain political power.

That is the nature of the incestuous relationship between money and politics: the vicious circle of money leading to power and power leading back to more money. Money fuels the political competition among the participants in the war for power and then money and the access to sources of money become the spoils of war.

In the context of such competition, the political war lays bare the driving greed of the combatants, one of the extremes of human nature. And we all know that we cannot change the fundamentals of our human nature. We can only work to manage them, to reduce their negative effects and to encourage fairness as we seek to create and maintain a level playing field.

Let us therefore not focus only on the Liberals who are now in the spotlight. All political parties and all politicians are part of the game of money and politics in which they are obsessed with the idea that the more money they have at their disposal, the greater their chances of achieving political success.

It is this obsession with the political power of money in winning elections that leads to the insane levels of electoral expenditure that have so permanently poisoned the political wars in the U.S.

Our goal in Canada is to reduce our chances of being infected with that American epidemic. We need to constantly remind ourselves of how uncomfortable we feel about money as an unavoidable fact of life in the world of politics. Even when no laws are broken, we need to resist the danger of giving up, of ever becoming complacent.

Put differently, we should always have great difficulty in accepting the consequences of the fact that no political party, whether in government or not, believes that it can function competitively without a significant amount of money.

Two of those words – consequences and competitively – haunt me every day as I consider the public policy issues and the politics of the moment.

It is in this context that I fully support all initiatives aimed at limiting the excessive influence of money in the political process. I know the desire to enjoy political power and to have greater access to money will never be eliminated but it can be reduced by changes in the rules governing political fundraising, political contributions generally and especially direct and indirect contributions to electoral campaigns.

Such initiatives are valuable forms of deterrence and punishment that we need badly.

I am not impressed by the noises that the other political parties in Ontario are making about the Liberals’ fundraising practices.

In the dirty matters of the politics of money, let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone.