Being the frontrunner for prime minister, with nobody else in sight, must be unnerving. One would be constantly torn between the temptation to avoid controversy, hoping to simply coast to victory, and the gnawing feeling that one must occasionally show some compelling reason — other than personal glory — for having persevered in this race for so long and so hard.

So Paul Martin came forward cautiously last week with proposals for making our political system more democratic, by ensuring greater independence and power for individual MPs. Fair enough.

But while Martin has correctly identified the compelling need to reform our democratic system, he’s focused on something that’s far from the heart of the problem. It’s a bit like criticizing the sniper’s treatment of others and then citing his surliness at checkout counters.

Certainly it’s hard to imagine how Martin’s reforms would do much to address the virtual collapse of meaningful democracy in this country. His limited approach would be more excusable if he wasn’t well aware of — in fact, a direct beneficiary of — the real nature of the problem.

Martin knows what ails our democracy. Recently, he was among a small group of Liberals who leaped to their feet with applause after former high-level civil servant Tom Kent delivered a stunning rebuke to the party for handing itself over to the clutches of corporate money.

Kent’s message to a reform-minded party gathering at the University of Toronto last month was simple and powerful: Corporate money has come to dominate Canadian political parties to an extent unimaginable thirty or forty years ago. The very social programs that Liberals take pride in — from Medicare to pensions — would never have been put in place, Kent argued, had politicians in the 1960s been as beholden to corporate finance as they are today.

Nowhere is that corporate influence more pronounced than in the unregulated domain of party leadership races. Kent noted that, in 1958, Lester Pearson spent only $3,000 on his successful bid for the Liberal leadership — an amount that, even in today’s dollars, would barely cover the cost of busing party-seeking teenagers to the convention to bolster the ranks of a candidate’s “youth wing.”

And no one is more familiar with the process of mounting a leadership bid than Martin who, for the past few years, has been acquiring a massive war chest from corporate Canada. One wonders whether this corporate bankrolling won’t have more impact on future political outcomes than increased rights for MPs to introduce private members bills or operate freely on parliamentary committees — reforms Martin is championing.

The point isn’t just that individual corporate donors are likely to expect favours or government contracts. While these kinds of paybacks quite rightly attract the glare of media attention, they are only part of the problem.

Perhaps more worrisome, because it attracts so little attention, is the way corporate donations influence the general drift of the government’s agenda. As corporations have lavished more and more money on the political process, they have developed a virtual stranglehold on policy in some key areas.

Take tax policy. Two Trudeau-era finance ministers, Edgar Benson in the late 1960s and Allan MacEachen in the early 1980s, proposed ambitious tax reforms that would have removed many of the tax privileges enjoyed by the financial elite, while reducing tax rates for all.

Although both reforms were eventually abandoned when Trudeau backed down in the face of corporate lobbying, it’s hard to imagine Ottawa even proposing such initiatives today. Indeed, it’s inconceivable that a politician would be appointed finance minister without Bay Street’s approval.

Some would say that’s a good thing. But many might like a tax reform along the lines of the Benson or MacEachen initiatives, which were based on principles set out in the 1960s Royal Commission on Taxation and summed up in the phrase “a buck is a buck is a buck” — meaning that there should be no better tax treatment for investment income than for income earned by the sweat of one’s brow.

The fact that this type of reform is no longer an option may have less to do with the “competitiveness of the global economy” than with the dominance of corporate money in today’s political system.

With corporations now collectively spending, in secret donations, many thousand times more than they did on key leadership bids forty years ago, one suspects they might be motivated by more than the simple pleasure of contributing to the political process.

It’s hard to imagine that the source and size of these contributions go unnoticed by the man likely to be our next prime minister who, meanwhile, urges us to make democracy work better — by focusing on the parliamentary independence of MPs.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...