Corruption and Scandals – A Modest Proposal for Electoral Reform

Corruption and Scandals – A Modest Proposal for Electoral Reform

criminal lawAnyone who follows politics or even just reads the news knows that great political questions and issues of public philosophy often get set aside from the political agenda because of the intervention of scandals involving a few individuals. The media, and therefore the public, are focused on whether X did or did not pay/bed so and so. Can these scandals be prevented? I think some of them can and I have a modest proposal to make public life a lot less susceptible to allegations and royal commissions about one scandal or another.

Let’s analyze scandals a bit. There are two basic types – money and sex. Well, sex is here to stay so I am not going to comment on that. Besides which, Canada hasn’t had a good sex scandal since Gerda Munsinger in 1963, so let’s leave those to the British (the French aren’t very scandalized by anything sex-related anyway, and the Americans are so constantly being scandalized by one sex scandal after another that it gets to be boring). So I will focus on corruption and money-based scandals.

At its most basic, the function of government is to hire people and companies and pay them to do something. It hires soldiers and policemen and social workers, lawyers and judges, construction workers and scientists. It hires supervisors and accountants to keep track of those people, and auditors and managers to keep track of them. It hires companies to build jails and hospitals and roads and bridges and to make tanks and planes and trucks and computers. In turn, people want to be hired, or they want their company or their cousin or their needy neighbor to be hired for something. At the same time, the business of politicians is to get elected or re-elected. This means they need money to print signs and brochures, to rent offices and telephones, to run ads, etc. How do these ambitions mesh? Well, the same way every time!

People and companies are sometimes motivated to donate money to politicians in the hope that, if elected, they will favour them or their company or their cousin etc., and give them a contract. They think that their campaign receipt carries an unspoken IOU of a future favour. Political candidates, eager for the money so they can finance their campaign, may not discourage donors from thinking: “you scratch my back and when elected I will scratch yours – I will remember which company gave my campaign money.” Nothing is ever said, it’s all implicit, but it’s sometimes there, unspoken, in every such interaction, at least on one side: the hope of an unspoken obligation.

If it ever gets explicit and someone says “I will donate to your campaign if you help me get something that I want” or “if you donate to my campaign, I will vote for you to get the bridge contract, etc,” that is bribery and they get charged with a criminal offence. But when it’s unspoken and just expectations (99% of which end up being disappointed as most public officials discharge their duties honestly and on the basis of good reasons) it can never be prosecuted. Some politicians may seek to exploit their donors, who are allowed to hope that they will have the inside track on something, and some donors may seek to exploit politicians, thinking that their money can create a sense of obligation. But no one ever says it, so the system rolls along. When it gets too explicit then we have a scandal and everyone piously yells: “corruption!” But our system of campaign financing makes this inevitable occasionally, and then the press has another feeding frenzy about all the dishonesty.

So what’s my modest proposal and my solution to this problem? Simple! We abolish campaign contributions – no one can donate money to a political candidate or party or to anyone supporting them. The government will pay each party a sum based on its popular vote or number of seats or as per some formula, and that’s all the money it gets. We partially have that already but it is in the process of being repealed. I say it should be preserved and extended and no money donations or receipts should be allowed at all. You can work on your own time for your favourite candidate but you cannot give him or her money or goods.

“Too expensive,” you say. “Where is this money going to come from?” Well, it won’t cost the government a penny! That’s the beauty of this proposal. You see, right now political donations are tax deductible. If we abolish donations we also abolish the tax deductions. So the taxpayers will pay income tax on all their taxable income, not on the last 99% or 95% or whatever is left as net income after they have deducted their political contributions, as they do now. This will actually make money for the government and not cost it anything.

Yes, it would work. You’re welcome.


Phil Lister, Q.C.
Phil Lister, Q.C., is a lawyer practising in Edmonton, Alberta.

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