My colleague Marie Léger-St-Jean recounted the drama of corruption in Québec in her last blog post. The classic characters took the stage one after the other: puppets, harlequins, Artful Dodgers, Pierrots, and happier clowns. While her post was published yesterday, a new pathetic act was added: the police arrested the mayor of Montreal.
After having seen them expose not only the deep ramifications of corruption, but also its long history, we understand that it is a key part of Québec’s economy, well integrated in the system. It is neither exceptional nor new. The links between public contracts, development of the private sector, and party funding go back a long way and lent assistance to the economic construction of the province, for better or worse.
The Charbonneau Commission is lifting the veil on the structures of this economy. It took form in a half-light advantageous for certain individuals and firms. It was about time we learnt about it!
That being said, does this make it a typically Québécois evil? A cultural problem eating away French Canadians because of their Latin origins? Actually, dear English-speaking Canadian friends, this short text aims to remind you that no Charbonneau Commission could spill dirty secrets in other provinces because a good chunk of what it considers to be corruption is actually legal there!
When René Lévesque took power in 1976, political funding was one of the issues he addressed in priority. Of course, he wanted to end vote-catching and other shameful habits, but he also wanted to level the playing field: the PQ couldn’t rely upon the same extensive funding networks at the time as it does today.
He thus chose to forbid corporate political funding, and Québec became the first province to do so. The state gave political parties an allowance to compensate the restrictions on other sources of funding. The federal government followed suit many decades later (in the mid-2000s), partly thanks to significant and constant pressure from the Bloc québécois.
The rest of Canada did not jump on the bandwagon however.
Political funding elsewhere in Canada
On a total of 13 provinces and territories, only two apart from Québec (Manitoba and Nova Scotia) banned corporate contributions to electoral funding. In all others, frontman schemes are unnecessary: businesses can enter into agreements directly with parties to contribute generously.
Surely we can celebrate the clarity of it all: we get to know which companies contribute to parties. But do we know what they get in exchange? No more than in Québec, and since there is no point in investigating matters which are legal, how are we meant to find out?
In fact, in Québec, a former candidate to become mayor of Montréal revealed the existence of a frontman scheme and contributed to the explosion of scandals which led to the Charbonneau Commission. Since the main objective of the scheme is to allow businesses to contribute to political parties, it would be totally superfluous in provinces and territories where corporate funding is allowed.
Some provinces and one territory go even further: British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, PEI, and Yukon do not cap contributions. It’s also worth noting that these six provinces and territory even allow outside political contributions. Therefore, not only can businesses contribute like people, wherever they are based, but both categories can give as much as they want.
In this case, it’s the scheme termed “double-accounting” at the Charbonneau Commission which loses all relevance. Indeed, its main aim is to hide cash received when dries out the stock of frontmen used to exceed the maximum contribution (or to bypass the ban on corporate contributions).
Double-accounting also allows parties to exceed the limit on election expenses, which are not capped in both Alberta and Yukon. There, parties can spend as much money as they can raise. Hence, it is legal in Yukon for a single corporation to give as much money as it sees fit to ensure that the politician most mindful of its interests gets elected.
Collecting funds in this way seems like an embryonic version of what is in vogue in the United States. There, super PACs (for Political Action Committee) have finally lifted all barriers between parties and companies, and campaign costs go up every single election cycle.
Is Québec corrupt? It is blatantly clear now. But is it more corrupt than other provinces? One could argue that it mostly has stricter laws regarding political party funding, which raise red flags that allow to uncover corruption.
This article was written by Simon Tremblay-Pepin, a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.