New Brunswick

Last supper: Wednesday's Premier's Dinner last time for corporate donations

The provincial Liberal Party is enjoying one last cash grab Wednesday night at the annual $500 per plate Premier's Dinner. As of June 1, corporations and unions can no longer make such donations.

New law bans corporate, union political donations on June 1

The annual dinner with the premier Wednesday night will be the last time corporations and unions can buy expensive tickets with the money going to the political party. (CBC)

New Brunswick Liberals will be in Moncton this evening enjoying one last large money haul from business donors just hours before the practice becomes illegal and critical corporate support for political parties in the province is shut down for good.

"Some people have this perception that businesses are potentially influencing politicians and so hopefully this will put people's mind at ease," said senior Gallant government cabinet minister Donald Arseneault Tuesday about the ban.

"We will not accept any more donations for corporations and unions and therefore hopefully people will put that argument to rest."

The initiative to outlaw corporate and union donations passed through the Legislature four weeks ago but was delayed from taking effect until midnight tonight, so Liberals could fit in one last major fundraiser — the $500 per plate Premier's Dinner at Casino New Brunswick — under old donation rules. 

Last year the dinner raised nearly $400,000 for the Liberal Party, about three-quarters of that from businesses who bought most of the tickets.

Liberal cabinet minister Donald Arseneault says banning corporate and union political donations should put an end to any belief that political parties are being influenced in that manner. (CBC)
Arseneault said Progressive Conservatives had their own dinner with corporate supporters before the rules changed and it was decided Liberals should be able to do the same. 

"We've had a Premier's dinner every year for a number of years now," said Arseneault. "Just to be fair —  it was already planned so we're going to do it (the ban) on June 1st."

Corporate money has financed political activity in New Brunswick for generations, flowing overwhelmingly to whichever political party has been in power.

According to records kept by Elections NB, businesses have donated more than $24 million to New Brunswick political parties over the last 30 years, about $2 million more than the amount donated by citizens and sixty times more than the money given to parties by trade unions.

Those donations have been large but not loyal, with up to 85 per cent of corporate money going to the Liberal party when it was in power and up to 90 percent to the Progressive Conservative party when it governed.

That has fed suspicions that many businesses donate in exchange for influence or favours, not out of any sense of civic duty.

Expensive meal

At last year's Premier's Dinner the most generous donors included 23 companies that paid $5,000 each to buy whole tables at the event.

The list included many firms that do significant business with the province and others which were openly in search of provincial funding.

One that bought an entire table, the Norwegian peat moss company Jiffy Products Ltd., received $2.5 million in provincial government aid less than three months later.

Another who bought a $5,000 table, the Miramichi Airport Commission Inc., received $500,000 in provincial funding just weeks later.

The Gallant government acknowledged that those kind of interactions, even if they are unrelated, can create a poor impression in the public about how government operates.

"New Brunswickers want to believe that their elected representatives are working for them," said Health Minister Victor Bourdreau as he brought legislation to restrict corporate and union donations forward in early May.

"By completely eliminating political contributions by corporations and trade unions, we are sending a strong message to New Brunswickers: We work for you. Banning political contributions for these groups is the right thing to do."

Green Party leader David Coon calls Wednesday's Premier's Dinner 'the last hurrah.' (Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick)
The changes were supported by all three parties, even though both Liberals and Progressive Conservatives will lose access to their largest donors beginning on Thursday.

Green Party Leader David Coon, who initially proposed the ban last year, said eliminating corporate money from New Brunswick politics is such an important long term reform, he's not overly concerned that Liberals are having one last big corporate fundraiser tonight.

"It's the last hurrah. It would have been better in my view not to delay but I could see why Liberals wanted to do it," said Coon, who believes the big event tonight isn't the fundraiser — it's the donation ban that take effect just hours later.

"It's a step forward in ending that culture of pay to play,"

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