Campaign finance and the ‘consumers first’ agenda

In a speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa this week, Industry Minister James Moore made a connection between his government’s telecommunications policy—the one that precipitated a costly and prolonged advertising and lobbying effort from the incumbent telcos, and a cross-country counter-campaign from the minister himself—to changes in campaign finance rules.

“Since I was appointed minister of industry back in July, it has become painfully and very clearly apparent to me, the virtue of the government’s decision to ban corporate donations to political parties, because we can now make policy decisions that are in the best interests of all Canadians and are not beholden to the pressures of political finance,” Moore said on Wednesday.

Yes, the minister was crediting one virtuous Conservative policy for generating another, but in a week where a “consumers first” agenda topped the throne speech rumour mill (see John Ivison’s column), the connection between this agenda and campaign finance restrictions is worth reconsidering. The Lobby Monitor examined this in July, just as the telecom incumbents’ board members were registering to lobby en masse, and before the campaign became very, very public.

Corporate and union contributions were banned at the federal level and limited locally in 2004. The Conservative government eliminated them outright in 2007 and capped the amount for individual contributions, now indexed at $1,200. The changes, which now include the phasing out of the public per-vote subsidy, have made individual donations essential to contesting elections.

The first major volley in the telco dispute, from the government’s side, was a petition on the Conservative Party website, and circulated on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Facebook page, declaring that the government was “Standing Up for Wireless Consumers.” David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, said in an interview that the petition showed a party looking to reconnect with individual voters on “small, transactional issues,” and was evidence of campaign finance laws leading the government to adopt more government relations-style campaigns to raise money.

Coletto wasn’t drawing direct links between the new fundraising rules and the telecom approach, but like Moore, he said different pressures would have been applied under the old funding model. “You can see how grassroots fundraising [and] small donors encourage governments and political parties to tailor their policies to those consumers, to the mass, as opposed to elites,” he said.

Harold Jansen, associate professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, told The Lobby Monitor cellphone bills are a significant expense for small businesses, an important constituency for the Conservatives, so the election rules have changed the calculation to how many $1,200 individual donations they might gain from this kind of policy.

“It’s money or it’s many,” one consultant speaking on background said. “You have to show that there’s a number of people that think this is a good idea. You can’t use money anymore.”

Expect this approach to continue, and to expand, as the Oct. 16 throne speech launches a two-year pre-election period where the consumer rules. Ivison wrote in Tuesday’s National Post that airlines and financial institutions could join the telcos as sectors the government addresses under the consumer agenda. And this won’t be restricted to the Tories. The rule change has also allowed the NDP to shift to more mainstream policies not so tied to unions, including direct consumer-friendly appeals, Coletto said.

Kady O’Malley blogged at CBC this week about how the NDP has already pushed for air passenger protection that was thwarted by the Conservatives. The Lobby Monitor also reported this week how different merchant groups will design campaigns this fall, appealing to consumers as they prepare to lobby the government to take action on credit card fees. The increased volatility of voters who are less loyal to a single party has increased the incentives for parties to appeal to individuals’ pocketbooks. It’s what we call transactional politics.

Public interest groups are happy about the shift, and the reception they’re receiving these days from government. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) executive director John Lawford told The Lobby Monitor this week that PIAC is getting more meetings with senior people than ever before, resulting from more populist approaches. The organization will continue to push for a fourth major player in Canada’s wireless market, a digital economy strategy, a proposed Financial Consumer Code of Conduct, and anti-spam legislation in the fall. He shouldn’t have a hard time finding people on the Hill who are keen to listen.