02/20/2013 04:53 EST | Updated 04/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba premier eyes controversial subsidy, limits third-party ads

ST. ANDREWS, Man. - Manitoba's governing New Democrats may accept a new public subsidy for political parties as it moves to limit election advertising by lobby groups and other bodies.

Premier Greg Selinger is mulling a report from the province's independent allowance commissioner, Paul Thomas, that recommends registered political parties split a special taxpayer-funded subsidy worth up to $600,000 per year.

"We think there are some good recommendations in there. The report will be carefully considered and a decision will be made in due course," Selinger said Wednesday.

"(Thomas) gives a good rationale for why he thinks there needs to be a mix of public and private forms of support to ensure democracy functions well."

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives oppose such a subsidy.

"Demanding funds, forcibly taken from taxpayers, to operate your political party is just wrong and we won't accept a penny of the money," Tory Leader Brian Pallister said.

The proposed subsidy, in one form or another, has been a political football in Manitoba for years.

It grew out of a plan to replace corporate and union donations, which were banned a decade ago.

In 2007, the NDP created a plan to give each registered political party $1.25 a year for every vote they received in the most recent election.

The Tories immediately refused to accept their share, worth about $200,000 a year, and called the idea a "vote tax".

The NDP also declined to accept its share of the cash, worth $275,000 per year, despite protests from delegates at the party's annual conventions.

The government decided to try another route by appointing Thomas, a former political science professor, as an independent commissioner to find an acceptable form of subsidy.

The NDP made it clear, however, that his mandate was to find a subsidy, not to decide whether one is warranted.

Thomas issued his findings this week. He suggested each party be given $100 for every candidate that ran in the most recent election, along with money based on the average number of votes received over the two most recent elections.

The NDP has touted the subsidy as a way to help parties, especially smaller ones, operate.

The New Democrats have also pointed out that other subsidies already exist and have been used by all parties. Those include a 50 per cent reimbursement of election campaign expenses and a tax credit for political donations.

Selinger said he will discuss Thomas's findings with his caucus and party officials before deciding whether to accept the subsidy.

At the same time, the NDP is moving to limit how much campaigning can be done by interest groups, unions and anyone else outside of the legislature.

Cabinet proclaimed a section of the Elections Finances Act Wednesday that forbids third parties from spending more than $5,000 during an election campaign.

The idea was first passed by the legislature in 2000, but was never put into effect until now.

Selinger would not discuss the issue in detailWednesday during a public appearance north of Selkirk, where he announced the start of ice-breaking operations to prevent flooding on the Red River

"That was a recommendation made in 2000, and you'll see some results on that," he said.

Because the spending limit only applies to election campaigns, it's not clear whether it will have a big impact on ads that are usually run by the Manitoba Nurses Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and others.

In the lead-up to recent elections, usually starting well before the official campaign period, unions have run ads warning against a return to the fiscal cuts of the 1990's — the last time the Progressive Conservatives were in power.

Now that Manitoba has adopted fixed election dates, interest groups know well in advance when each campaign will begin, and can time their advertisements to stop right before an election campaign.

There are also exceptions to the limit. For example, third parties can continue to run ads as long as they do not promote or oppose a particular party or candidate.