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February 24, 2011

Liberal Hopefuls May Face Future Conflict

When The Honourable E.N. (Ted) Hughes, Q.C. served as Conflict of Interest Commissioner, he made a ruling that a cabinet minister was in an apparent conflict of interest because he made a decision involving someone who had donated $25 to his constituency association. (That is just twenty-five with no zeros!) Under subsequent Commissioners the pendulum swung the other way with some observers wondering if any MLA could ever get into trouble. In their defense, those Commissioners spoke of their record of offering sufficient advice so as to help members avoid problems.

The four BC Liberal leadership candidates will have to be particularly careful in the months ahead so as to avoid charges of apparent conflict of interest. One will be premier with the rest in cabinet; how many should absent the room and excuse themselves from any involvement in a decision with respect to the minimum wage? Is an apparent conflict of interest created when a leadership candidate, who is in receipt of a $40,000 donation from a major restaurant chain, is involved in preventing the minimum wage from rising to $10 an hour? There is a good chance that the current Conflict Commissioner will be asked to rule on that and similar points sometime in the not too distant future.

Early in its leadership campaign, the NDP announced that its candidates would have a maximum limit of $2,500 for any single donor and that they would have to make a list of all who donated more than $250 public on the party's website prior to the April 17th vote. Mike de Jong was the first Liberal to announce that he was making his list of donors public. During the Shaw leadership debate, George Abbott made a similar announcement and three days later, published his list. Soon after, Christy Clark and Kevin Falcon caved to the pressure and published their lists. For Clark it was another policy reversal as she said on the Shaw debate that she would comply with the minimum legal requirements under the Election Act, filing with Elections BC 90 days after the vote.

Analysis of what the four Liberal candidates have revealed to date shows that together they raised $1.9 million. Falcon led the pack with $708,665, de Jong trailed with $233,450. Clark raised $519,040, and Abbott $427,842. The final numbers that will be filed with Elections BC by the end of May will be higher, but probably not substantially more. The Liberals have a self-imposed spending limit of $450,000; the NDP limit is $175,000.

Each of the Liberal campaigns raised the majority of their money from major donors, and over 80% of the major donors were businesses. Clark raised 83% of her money from donors who gave $2,500 or more, Falcon 81%, Abbott 73% and de Jong 63%. Clark's largest donation was for $30,000. She received 60 donations for $2,500 or more, 17 for $10,000 or more. Falcon's largest donation was for $40,000. He received 96 donations for $2,500 or more, 11 for $10,000 or more. Abbott's largest donation was for $25,000. He received 62 donations for $2,500 or more, 7 for $10,000 or more. The largest donation received by de Jong was for $10,000, and he only got two like that; he received 29 donations for $2,500 or more.

There are 19 cases where a major donor gave to more than one of the campaigns. Telus donated $5,000 to each of the four campaigns. Five of the 19 multiple-candidate supporters donated to Abbott, Clark and Falcon, but not to de Jong. Eight contributed to Abbott and Clark, but not to Falcon or de Jong. Three donated to both Clark and Falcon, but not to Abbott or de Jong. It is interesting to speculate on the reasons why some major donors neglected one or more of the campaigns.

Who believes that a major donor is treated the same way as John or Jane Citizen when they call the premier's office? To what extent do those donations open doors? You can bet that by summer the opposition and journalists will submit freedom of information requests for appointment books and compare them to the donor lists. That is the least of the concerns for the leadership candidates. A senior staff person should go through the cabinet agenda and look for possible apparent conflicts relative to the list of donors; failure to do so might result in a busy schedule for the Commissioner.

Whether or not any of the specific donations come back to bite the Liberals before the next election, it is certain that how their leadership campaign was financed will reinforce messages on whose interests they can be counted on to put first. The Liberals have won three election campaigns, and after each one significant corporate tax cuts have occurred that were not discussed during the campaign. The donations suggest that no one should trust them to be any different next time.