Money is not bad in and of itself as a requirement in the political world. But, the system must control this money; otherwise, the money may control the system.
Political Corruption Can Be Reduced
Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Chief Electoral Commissioner of Canada, in an interview with Anita Brauna, Director of Diena's Business Section, and reporter Sanita Jemberga
Political party financing has been a problem in many countries for quite a few years. In your opinion, what are some of the best ways to finance election campaigns so as to reduce the dependence of political parties on big money?
There are a number of things Canada has done and I am here to relate the Canadian experience. I am not here to give any prescriptions to anybody and, certainly, not to my Latvian hosts. I cannot claim any professional knowledge of the Latvian system and it would be wrong for me to come here and prescribe anything.
You are at a specific stage in the development of your democracy and we, in Canada, have been a democracy since even before we became a country in 1867. It took a lot of steps for us - in some cases even 50 years - to move in a particular direction. Your system is facing a lot of pressure all of a sudden and I understand that.
The number one thing we did in Canada was to restrict campaign expenditures to a reasonable level, which would still allow candidates and parties to let people know what their platforms are and who they are as well.
Another thing we did was to require public disclosure of all contributions and all expenditures. We control these reports through a system of enforcement. This is done by a commissioner who is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer and is independent from the government or any political party. The statute is enforced independently by the state prosecutor because the commissioner not only investigates, but also prosecutes if there is a reason. All information is totally public - if you think that your political opponent has cheated, you can report that and it will be investigated. If you are an average Canadian who is interested in the political sphere and you want to check the expenditures and contributions of various people, you can do that. If you have any complaint, it will be responded to in the same way as if you were a political party. The commissioner must explain in writing why he is not launching an investigation or he must prosecute in a court of law.
When we talk about limitations on various expenses, there has always been the argument in Latvia that, whatever limits you impose, dishonest people will always find a way to cheat. What types of limitations do you find the most effective?
In Canada, we have had the experience that limits on expenditures work very well and we have had such limits in place since 1974. Broadcasting is an expenditure, therefore we do not control broadcasting separately. We give a set amount of money as a limit and everything must fall under that. This has worked very well.
It is a well-known fact in Canada that, if you are a party or a candidate, you are not going to fool around with the limits or try to hide things because the risk of being found out is too high. If you are a candidate, then you might win the election for nothing because (in the end) you will lose it. If you are a party, a fine will be imposed by the judge and it will become public knowledge. The problem has become non-existent; we just don’t do it.
In terms of limits on contributions, Canada recently passed a law and we are counting on an increase in public financing to make up for any shortfalls, while political contributions from corporations will be significantly reduced or banned outright. We are banking on our success and enforcing limits on contributions. This will curtail and is meant to replace the corporate money that will no longer find itself a way into the system. If anyone wants to fool around with that, the commissioner will investigate any complaints. Collusion is a crime. That is to say, if a corporation were to say “Okay, we’ll turn around and all our directors will give money and we all agree to this,” that is collusion and, the moment it becomes known, successful prosecution can be undertaken.
What will be the penalty for that?
If it is a corporation, it will be found guilty and there will be a fine levied by the judge. There is also the possibility, but this has not occurred in Canada in over 30 years, that someone could go to jail over this. But that (sort of punishment) is only used when there are a number of instances and a strong deterrent is needed to make people understand that you mean business with your law.
In my view, the fines act as a deterrent, but, moreover, the public knowledge that a firm has broken the law carries a lot of weight in Canada. All of this depends on what the ethics are, on what the level of the ethic in the country is and how far it is accepted as a norm in society.
You said there are restrictions on expenditures. What kind of restrictions are they? How much can you spend in total or how much can you spend on advertising?
As a candidate, you can only spend 60,000 Canadian dollars. You must remember that we do not have lists, we only have individual candidates. For the parties, their level of spending depends on the number of candidates they have and the limit is 70 cents for each elector they are trying to reach in any one district. For example, we have 21 million electors in Canada. If you have candidates in all the districts, in the last election, this amounted to about 12 million Canadian dollars. That is the maximum amount you can spend.
By expenditures, we mean every cost that you incur to sustain your party or to attack another party. This is a very far-reaching definition that includes the cost of rent, the cost of staff, all the polling done and all the advertising bought. Accounts must be made public. If someone wants to question these expenses, they can - auditors will review that as well. The candidates and the parties should have professional auditors who test the veracity of their reports. If they willingly lie, they are also guilty of a crime.
Do you think that public financing is the way to reduce political corruption?
We have found this to be the case in the past. Because there has been public financing and a limit on expenditures, the demand for corporate money or large donations from individuals is not that strong. Members of Parliament and the parties do not have to spend or raise as much money as their American counterparts have to. Canadians have decided that they want more public financing in order to avoid the favoritism of corporations or large individual donors, or unions through limits imposed on donations.
Canada has had public financing for parties since 1974. How did the public react to the notion that they would have to pay politicians?
Whenever this issue is debated, there is always a reluctance on the part of some of the parties. But the political solution has always been in favor of it or in favor of more (financial support) in order to maintain the integrity of the system and the trust of Canadians in that. That is the size of the glove that best fits our hand.
But don’t people ask questions like - if the parties are subsidized by the state, why should they be able to receive donations at all?
In fact, we have responded to this rationale by saying that, if you are a millionaire, you can only give 5,000 dollars instead of 100,000 dollars. If you are a corporation, you can no longer give any money to a party and only 1,000 dollars to a candidate per year.
You have had different limitations in force even up until this new law on donation limits was adopted. What was the reason for introducing this limit now?
When the Prime Minister introduced this legislation, he said that he wanted to address a perception. There was this idea in his mind that the public perception was that there was favoritism in the eyes of the public towards the contracts they received or in terms of the grants they got from the government in relation to the contributions they made to the political parties forming the government. That was a perception he wanted to address.
But it was just a perception, not concrete fact?
There was no clear demonstration of this, but there was certainly a lot of media speculation with keen reporters following various web sites where every contribution was reported and other web sites with the names of the companies which got the grants and contracts. The same names kept popping up. It led to widespread media and political speculation that was used by the opposition parties.
If the parties did receive donations, who is responsible for their legal control - the parties or the donors?
The parties have a legal responsibility not to accept any money from unauthorized sources and, in Canada right now, this includes foreign sources. They also have an obligation, if the check comes from a corporation or a union, that they cannot accept it.
One must understand how these parties function. The checks come into the mailroom and they are sent to the bank. If the knowledge (of the check’s origin) comes out, at the moment they seize on that knowledge they must act to return the money. If they have accepted an illegal contribution, there is an obligation not to accept such money. Such knowledge will become evident, because they must report it within three months. If anyone has a complaint and then they realize, “Oh, my God, we have received money from a source which has not been authorized,” they will return it.
Our parties say that they are not investigators.
My answer would be that when something becomes public knowledge to you, then this is a source you must act on. Sometimes, it is not always evident; but, as far as ordinary precautions are taken, we are happy.
All illegal sources will be traced, no doubt. We will also investigate the person who made the contribution because this is also an infraction. It is not only the obligation of the party, but also the obligation of individuals and corporations to respect this statute. If they make an illegal contribution, we will investigate and, if we establish that there has been an infraction, they will be declared guilty. We catch it at both ends.
Have you got any criminal cases regarding party financing?
I cannot remember any and I have been in office since 1990. There have been investigations on reports which were not produced on time and things like that. But it is a rare occurrence because the price is very high.
If you are an unsuccessful candidate and you are found guilty at this stage, you cannot be a candidate for seven more years if you are found guilty in a court of law. If you are an ordinary Canadian, you loose your right to vote for 5 years if you are found guilty of an offence under the Canadian Elections Act. Plus, there is a fine and the remote possibility of jail. (This punishment) remains in the statute, but has not been used for a long time and I would favor its re-introducing only if we came across a phenomenon which repeated itself periodically and at an alarming rate. You only use a big hammer for a big nail, but if you haven’t got a big nail, there is no need for a large hammer.
How amenable were politicians towards your initiative to curb the amount of donations?
There was a lot of discussion because there was a lot of concern and this was quite understandable. When you talk about money, this is something that they need. Money is not bad in and of itself as a requirement in the political world. But, the system must control this money; otherwise, the money may control the system. But a compromise was reached – Canada is built on reasonable compromises.
And the last question – does the media, especially the electronic media, bear any responsibility for controlling party financing?
The obligation is on the political parties not to exceed their ceilings. The obligation on the broadcasters is to provide sufficient advertising time and to allow them to transmit their messages during primetime. But, the parties should not exceed their ceilings and there has never been a problem.
There is also an obligation on TV and radio to allow free time to all the parties, not only to those who can afford to buy prime time. This relates to both public and private broadcasters. There is also an obligation based on whether they will obtain their license - equity must prevail in terms of public coverage, both on news and public affairs programs. There must be equity in the treatment of political parties and there should not be favoritism; otherwise, they could loose their license.
This interview has been published with permission of "Diena", where it appeared in Latvian language on 1 October 2003.