Private wealth still trumping public interest with Canadian MPs

Par Duff Conacher le 1 mai 2008

While representatives of all political parties point accusing fingers at each other, none have focused on cleaning up the "He who pays the piper calls the tune" and "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" system that is the basis for many decisions made in Ottawa.

Four years have passed since the law limiting annual donations of money, property and services to federal political parties and riding associations was passed; three years since ethics rules for MPs and senators came into force, and one-year since the Conservatives' "Federal Accountability Act" (FAA) banned any donations from corporations and other organizations and lowered the annual limit on individual donations.

Yet the Liberals recently advertised an auction offering the highest bidder the opportunity to play golf with Liberal MP Paul Martin, attend a hockey game with Liberal MP Ken Dryden, or play tennis with Liberal by-election candidate Bob Rae and his brother John, Executive VP at Power Corporation.

Media coverage led the Liberals to limit bids to individuals up to their annual party donation limit of $1,100. However, the Liberal MPs expressed no concerns about selling access to themselves for cash, even though ethics rules prohibit MPs from accepting such gifts and require MPs to uphold the highest ethical standards.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are arguing in court that it was legal to exceed election spending limits by giving dozens of their 2006 election candidates tens of thousands of dollars each to pay the party headquarters for regional TV ads that only mentioned the local candidate at the end. Elections Canada refused to reimburse this part of these candidates' spending, making the very reasonable ruling that the ads were mostly national party, not local candidate, spending.

The other federal parties are not clean either, as lobbyists have worked on their party leadership and election campaigns, they have received huge donations, and they also transfer funds to local candidates.

And, of course, many corporate lobbyists and citizen groups are not clean either, as it takes two to tango (and to scratch each other's back).

These rampant unethical attitudes, and actions, are so widespread that Democracy Watch itself had the problem in the past of a board member who saw nothing wrong with volunteering for a federal junior Cabinet minister while also lobbying the minister. Needless to say, that person was soon afterwards no longer a Democracy Watch board member.

Unfortunately, loopholes in federal laws and rules and weak enforcement and penalties essentially legalize unethical, undemocratic means of influencing the federal government. Because the Conservatives' broke their election promise to limit donations to all candidates through the FAA, it is still legal for anyone to make an unlimited donation to a nomination race or party leadership candidate and the donation never has to be disclosed (as long as the candidate uses the donation for personal reasons as opposed to their campaign).

As well, federal MPs only have to disclose things they own worth $10,000 or more, making it easy for a lobbyist to give them a gift worth up to $9,999. Senators and most government officials don't even have to disclose anything publicly about what they own or owe.

And while the FAA finally banned MPs from having their own secret trust fund, MPs can still maintain a secret fund for someone else, and riding associations and parties can also maintain secret funds.

In addition, anyone can still loan an unlimited amount of money to anyone in the federal government.

Another huge loophole is the lack of a requirement to disclose who is volunteering for parties and candidates. While it is illegal for a corporation or other organization to pay employees to volunteer, without disclosure there is no way Elections Canada can ensure these rules are being followed (and it also lacks the power to do regular audits to ensure the limits on donations of money are being followed).

While lobbyists' ethics rules prohibit them from using improper means of influence, the federal Registrar of Lobbyists is still controlled by a federal Cabinet minister and continues to refuse to enforce these rules.

On the other side, federal politicians still give special access to people who donate the most to their parties, in part because the federal Ethics Commissioner continues to fail to enforce rules banning such access-for-cash activities.

The unethical decision-making system in Ottawa also continues because of loopholes in ethics rules that allow federal politicians to make decisions in which they have a financial interest (as long as the decision applies broadly), loopholes that allow secret lobbying and allow politicians and government officials to lobby the day after they leave office, and whistleblower protection that doesn't even apply to all government officials (let alone political staff and members of the public).

All party leaders keep their MPs supporting this corrupt system by rewarding them with appointments (including as the candidate in a riding) and with donations from party headquarters for their election campaigns (which are still not limited).

Until all these loopholes are closed, everyone should expect that people in the federal government (and provincial, territorial and municipal governments) will continue to scratch the backs of private interest's instead of acting in the public interest.


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