'It's not legalized bribery': Premier defends donation rules amid calls for change

"It really is a system of legalized bribery overall," says Duff Conacher, head of Democracy Watch.

Democracy Watch says placing no limits on union and corporate donations 'corrupts' the system

Duff Conacher from Democracy Watch and Premier Dwight Ball have different views on the impact of political donations.

The head of Democracy Watch is calling for changes to how political parties raise money in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It really is a system of legalized bribery overall," Duff Conacher told CBC.

"That's why it's so insidious. It has to be stopped, because of the undemocratic, unethical effects it still has."

Most other provinces, and the federal government, put limits on what people can donate. The federal government and an increasing number of provinces have also banned unions and companies from donating to political parties.

Overall that system is corrupting decision making.- Duff Conacher, Democracy Watch

In Newfoundland and Labrador there are no limits. Anyone can give an unlimited amount of money and they don't even need to live in the province to donate.

In Ontario, the Liberal government recently banned union and corporate donations after controversies over private fundraising events.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new limits on fundraising events that have been described as "cash for access."

Democracy Watch says people in this province should be even more concerned.

"What everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador should realize is the system is the scandal, and the system is corrupt," said Conacher.

"You may not see a particular scandal where you will be able to connect a donation exactly to the handing out of the contract, but overall that system is corrupting decision making."

Both the Liberals and PCs do the bulk of their fundraising through two big annual events. A golf tournament and $500-a-plate dinner with the leader attract a lot of companies that do business with government.

The Liberal's $500-a-plate fundraising dinner in September allowed donors to meet with the premier and other government ministers and MHAs. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Construction, paving, engineering and architecture firms all donate.

For example, consulting company EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young) donated $2,300 to the Liberal Party in 2014, the last year for which donation lists have been published, and in 2016 members of the firm bought seats at the Liberal fundraising dinner. 

The company has received several high-profile contracts to review Muskrat Falls and libraries, and to help decide how a new long-term care centre in Corner Brook should be built.

Those contracts, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, didn't have to be tendered, meaning government could pick whichever firm it wanted to.

None of that is against the rules, and many companies who receive government contracts donate to political parties.

Political science professor Kelly Blidook wants a ban on union and corporate donations to political parties in Newfoundland and Labrador, similar to the one brought in by the federal government in 2006. (Gary Locke/CBC)

But situations like that are why Memorial University political science professor Kelly Blidook is also calling for a ban on corporate and union donations.

"Do you want paving companies, or do you want construction companies giving money to people who are going to be in cabinet or who might get to make decisions? And, similarly, do you want unions doing that, potentially giving money to people who might see negotiations with them eventually?" said Blidook.

"I don't think any of that fosters the sense that a regular citizen would look and say, 'That's all right. I think that's a good idea.'"

Premier defends rules

"It's not legalized bribery. I don't see it that way at all," Premier Dwight Ball told CBC News.

"The most important thing is that when people make a voluntary donation to a political party there is a transparent process, everyone knows how much, the value, the name, when the donation is met. That money is then used to support campaigns of all political parties."

I've never opened a door because someone made a political donation.- Dwight Ball

Elections Newfoundland and Labrador posts annual lists of donations, but it often takes more than a year for them to be posted.

When it was in power, the Progressive Conservative party also took donations from companies doing business with government. (CBC)

Even though fundraising events give donors a chance to socialize with MHAs and cabinet ministers, Ball insists that money doesn't buy you access to his government.

"I've never opened a door because someone made a political donation," he said. "There's a lot of people that I call around this province on a regular basis that have never donated a dollar to this party.

"I certainly do not look at the donation list of the Liberal party when I make the decision to meet with someone."

Limit donations to $100: Democracy Watch

Democracy Watch says Quebec has the best political donation rules.

In a bid to fight corruption the province banned corporate and union donations.

Individuals can give $100, and that money is often matched by the province.

To make up for the lost revenue, parties also receive money for every vote they received in the last election.

Ball opposes any system that sees tax money go to political parties.

Blidook says giving public money to parties may be a tough sell but it's better than the current system.

"I think that a more democratic system actually has some form of tax money going to political parties, said Blidook.

"I just recognize that most people see that financially as a difficult thing to do."

About the Author

Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.

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