A National Totem
"The law was premised on a fallacy. The idea was that there were enough people who were committed to politics and willing to contribute in a disinterested way to allow a party to make enough money to pay for its operations."
Louis Massicotte, professor of political science, Universite Laval
The fallacy was imagining that human nature can be turned around as readily as effecting new electoral reforms making it illegal for unions and corporations to fund political parties in the Province of Quebec. And, of course, the very idea that most people are that interested to begin with in parting with their hard-earned cash to fund political parties.
"Aggressive restriction drives many forms of political giving underground. So it's not that you have fewer political donations, but you have fewer direct political donations, and therefore less transparency", explained Michael Pinto-Duschinsky who has studied political financing around the world.
"The disappointment and the significance of this is that Canada has been considered in international academic forums as being a model example... I can't help wondering if those who have been responsible for administering campaign finance laws in Canada haven't been overconfident", mused Mr. Pinto-Duschinsky, consultant with Policy Exchange, a London-based think-tank.
In 1977 the Parti Quebecois government of Rene Levesque, premier of the province at that time, passed a law prohibiting political donations by companies, unions and interest groups. At the same time a limit was placed on individual contributions. And state funding through taxation sources was provided for political parties.
That initiative was considered a model for democratic electoral processes: "The political will to democratize the rules of the electoral game was established, and Quebec acquired forward-thinking legislation that was unique in the world", wrote Francine Bordeleau in a 2003 study for Quebec's chief electoral officer.
That was a little premature, and certainly even then hardly took in the full scope of the failure of the high-minded initiative. But then, Quebec does love to laud itself. And it also has a tendency to look away from those of its initiatives that haven't followed through on their premise and promise. And now suspicions and the undercurrent of knowing that things have never been as they seemed have been revealed.
The Charbonneau Commission investigating corruption in Quebec has finally succeeded in publicly revealing the extent and the depth of corruption in the construction industry. That public funding of municipal and provincial construction has hugely benefited the Mafia, and given more than ample funding to all of the province's political parties.
Less than amusing is that the very party that introduced the reforms that led to quite innovative ways to circumvent the law has been the major beneficiary. And somewhat more than ironic the newly-returned (relatively speaking) to power Parti Quebecois had insisted that the-then-ruling Liberal Party-governed Quebec undertake an investigation into rumours of corruption.
Which investigation has more than amply supplied the resulting commission with proof positive that corruption in the province is alive and well. That the law was "broken with impunity. We have known that for at least 10 years", said Andre Laroque a former deputy minister who helped draft the 1997 law introduced by the Parti Quebecois.
Quebec's chief electoral officer for 19 years, Pierre F. Cote informed an Ottawa parliamentary committee in Ottawa in 2006 that it was "wishful thinking" to attempt to forbid corporate donations. That senior executives of large corporations donate to parties and then are routinely reimbursed "which is obviously illegal", but those infractions are difficult to trace.
"The law became a perfect cover for shady practices, and it became a kind of national totem. It was a monument to the late Rene Levesque, It was a monument to Quebec", stated Louis Massicotte. "The farce is over."