Nfld. & Labrador

Former PC leader Ches Crosbie bankrolled the party last year with $300K in donations

Documents show that Ches Crosbie, the former leader of N.L.'s PC Party, donated $300,000 to his own party last year, as it waged an unsuccessful election campaign that was thrown into pandemic-caused chaos.

Political scientist says lack of restrictions on massive donation is 'highly concerning and unprecedented'

The former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador, Ches Crosbie, donated $300,000 to the party in 2021. Crosbie's cash accounted for more than 40 per cent of the party's donations. (CBC)

Documents show that Ches Crosbie, the former leader of Newfoundland and Labrador's Progressive Conservative Party, donated $300,000 to the party last year — more than 40 per cent of its overall income — as it waged a drawn-out and controversial election campaign that was thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite this large injection of cash from its leader, Newfoundland and Labrador's PCs dropped from 15 to 13 seats in the House of Assembly, and the Liberals under Premier Andrew Furey won a slim majority with 22 seats.

Crosbie lost his own seat in the district of Windsor Lake, and quit politics a few days after the results were announced.

When asked why he gave so much of his own money, Crosbie said he wanted to level the playing field with the incumbent Liberals, and that he believed strongly in his party's strategy to bring jobs and prosperity to the province.

You could say I put my money where my mouth is.- Ches Crosbie

"There was nothing I was going to get out of the financial contribution I made except give the PC Party the chance of coming into office and implementing that program," he said.

"You could say I put my money where my mouth is."

'Highly concerning'

A political scientist, however, says Crosbie's donation is further proof that Newfoundland and Labrador's elections rules are in need of an overhaul.

"I think that is highly concerning and unprecedented," said Russell Williams, a professor at Memorial University.

Williams says he believes it would be hard to find a similarly large donation by an individual to a political party in modern Canadian history.

Russell Williams, a professor in the political science department at Memorial University, says the fact that former PC leader Ches Crosbie can donate $300,000 to the party is 'highly concerning and unprecedented.' (Terry Roberts/CBC)

That's because the federal government and most other provinces have limits on the amount of donations that individuals, corporations and unions can make, he said.

That's not the case in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Essentially, their election campaign was financed by one donor, by and large, and that's really alarming for the state of our democratic institutions and a really sad comment on the state of our campaign finance laws here in Newfoundland and Labrador that that's allowed," said Williams.

The 2021 audited financial statements of the PC Party available on Elections N.L.'s website show that contributions totalled just over $721,000.

The party spent roughly $670,000 during the campaign.

The documents also includes a list of those who donated $100 or more to the party.

Two donations stand out from the rest: one for $50,000 and a second for $250,000. Both were from Crosbie, a retired lawyer and member of one of the province's best-known business and political families.

CBC News spoke with a handful of longtime political insiders who say they've never heard of such large donations by an individual in a single year.

The next largest single donation, at $15,000, was from Fortis Inc., while there were eight different donations of $10,000.

No rules were broken

Williams said the political optics of Crosbie's donations may be mitigated by the fact he was party leader. He also didn't break any rules.

However, said Williams, "I still think it's highly problematic because it says that people who have large sums of money have, essentially, extra power or extra influence over how our democratic institutions work."

David Brazil is the interim leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The vote was scheduled for Feb. 13, 2021, but the election was thrown into turmoil following a surge in COVID-19 cases in the week leading up to voting day, and strict new public health measures were invoked on the night before the scheduled vote.

In-person voting was cancelled, mail-in ballots were distributed and the results were ultimately not known until March 27, making it the longest campaign on record.

Fallout from the controversial election continues, with three legal challenges against the results still before the courts, and speculation swirling about a secret report that alleges harassment and bullying at Elections N.L.

In the lead-up to the campaign, the PCs announced they would limit their fundraising efforts in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Crosbie said it's already difficult for opposition parties to attract donations "because they'd rather give their money to the party in power in hopes of getting some kind of favour or preferment."

So Crosbie said he felt the need to open his own wallet.

"We probably wouldn't have done as well," Crosbie said when asked if his money made a difference.

"You don't run a political party on fumes. So if I didn't make that personal contribution, we would have had a much reduced opportunity to get our message out."

Crosbie's successor, interim PC Leader David Brazil, said he was aware that Crosbie made a significant contribution to the party last year. But he didn't know the specifics until Elections N.L. published the audited statements.

"We were fortunate enough that we had a leader who was committed to this party, but more importantly, committed to the people of this province, that he was able to put his own money up to ensure there was an alternative to the Liberal party and that we could get across this province and get our message out to people and hear from [voters] about what kind of government they wanted," said Brazil.

Following the election, there were loud cries for election reform in the province, and the Liberals have established an all-party committee with a mandate to modernize the Elections Act.

Crosbie agrees that changes are needed and says the process is taking too long.

As for his own future, Crosbie, 69, is not ruling out a return to politics, despite two unsuccessful provincial elections. 

"I'm just going to say that I like to see a job finished that I started," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.

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