Elizabeth May publicly recognized Stéphane Dion at a lunch this week where she was honored for her work promoting and representing women in politics. The former Liberal leader and Montreal MP, who has retreated from the spotlight, was given a big round of applause.
There is history between the two. When Mr. Dion was leader he controversially decided he would not run a Liberal candidate against Ms. May in the 2008 election. She didn't win that Nova Scotia seat but went on to win one in British Columbia in the May election.
Mr. Dion has not fared as well politically. However, he has remained a keen supporter of women in politics – especially now as he campaigns against the government's Political Loans Accountability Act.
He argues the new legislation will politicize financial institutions and is discriminatory against women, aboriginal people and new immigrants. More than that, it will put banks or credit unions in the position of deciding who should be a candidate and for what party.
The new act would prohibit political candidates from accepting loans from friends or corporations or unions, limiting acceptance of loans to financial institutions.
It's aimed, in part, at addressing what happened with many of the Liberal leadership candidates from 2006, some of whom have still not completely paid off their debts. The lengthy delay raised the question as to whether the money was actually a contribution – and there are strict rules regarding political contributions. (The last of Mr. Dion's debt is now being processed, according to his office.)
"Every day Canadians are expected to pay back loans under strict rules, and we believe that the same should apply to politicians," says Kate Davis, the spokesperson for Minister of State for Democratic Reform Tim Uppal. "Unfortunately, it seems that the Liberal Party thinks that politicians shouldn't be subject to the same rigorous rules as ordinary Canadians."
But Mr. Dion argues the bill is dangerous as it could politicize banks, leading to certain lenders being regarded as Conservative, Liberal, NDP or Bloc banks. It could also discourage women from running as they tend to have more trouble raising money.
"Bill C-21 gives financial institutions a monopoly on decision-making that is completely contrary to the democratic values of principles of Canadians who do not want access to public services to be linked to a prospective candidate's financial status," he said during a recent debate in the Commons.
Mr. Dion contends it's risky for financial institutions to be the ones making decisions as to whether someone can put their name forward to run.
"You do not buy your way into a life of public service in the same way that you buy a washing machine or a snowmobile," he argued. "There is a fundamental difference between asking for donations or loans from people by appealing to their sympathy for the ideas or the qualities of a prospective candidate and lining up at a counter in a bank where strictly commercial lending policies are applied."
Mr. Dion pointed out the potential conflicts that a lending institutions could find itself in; they are at risk of being accused of "political favouritism," he noted. He said the spotlight is on banks right now and any whiff or hint that they are not acting objectively could hurt the reputation of financial services – and that's s not a good thing in these shaky economic times.
"The exclusive power that Bill C-21 grants them thus presents a twofold problem, a problem of perception and a real risk, the danger of politicizing our financial institutions and a risk of discrimination involving these loans."
And that brings him to women candidates, who he believes will be disadvantaged because they tend to have lower incomes and may not have credit histories. "It would discriminate against people based on income and credit rating therefore favouring the rich and excluding many people from public service, notably many women, youth, newcomers and minorities in general."
Mr. Dion also noted that Canada has fewer women in Parliament than most of Europe – only 24 per cent representation. He said restricting loans to financial institutions could create "a new barrier for women entering politics."
The bill is part of a series of government reforms to make the political process more accountable and transparent, including scrapping the per-vote political subsidy. While the measures will make it more difficult for candidates to raise money, they do take money from big corporations or unions out of the mix and force politicians to really engage with the grassroots.