Politics

'DUMB AS A BAG OF HAMMERS’

The PM’s proposed party finance reforms anger critics—mainly Liberals

JULIAN BELTRAME February 3 2003
Politics

'DUMB AS A BAG OF HAMMERS’

The PM’s proposed party finance reforms anger critics—mainly Liberals

JULIAN BELTRAME February 3 2003

'DUMB AS A BAG OF HAMMERS’

Politics

JULIAN BELTRAME

The PM’s proposed party finance reforms anger critics—mainly Liberals

CALL IT A NEW silly season in Canadian politics—albeit one coinciding with the longest winter freeze in years. Jean Chrétien, who this year eschewed his annual golf pilgrimage to Florida, has huffed and puffed about calling a snap election if he does not get his way on the arcane issue of party financing reform. In return, several cranky Liberal MPs, most of them firmly in the Paul Martin camp, have warned they may vote against their own party if the PM insists on going ahead with what they regard as a loopy idea—even if the government might fall. Some have even made the suggestion (roundly derided as “crazy” by many others) that Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, a Chrétien appointee, would rebuff a request from the PM for an election and turn to Martin to form a government.

The threats and counter-threats may seem odd, but what’s at issue is far from trivial. As part of his eight-point ethics package unveiled last June, Chrétien proposed to put limits on donations. He is expected to cap contributions from individual corporations and unions at $1,000 a year per political party. That is a slight climbdown from a rumoured proposal of an outright ban. The limit for individuals would be set at $10,000. The resulting shortfall in parties’ finances would be made up by the government—taxpayers —compensating them based proportionally on the results of the last election.

Initially, Liberal party president Stephen LeDrew described a total ban as “dumb as a bag of hammers” because it would shut down political parties’ main pipeline to donors. He estimated that fundraising dinners accounted for about 60 per cent of all money collected by the Liberals, with about 95 per cent of that coming from corporations buying seats to listen to the likes of Chrétien

or Martin. That would be severely curtailed by the new rules. Since the Prime Minister modified the proposal, LeDrew has also modified his view, joking that now the plan is only as “dumb as two hammers.” Problems remain, he added, including the fairness of using taxpayers’ money to finance parties they do not support.

Given the ethical firestorms that have scorched his government, some critics say Chrétien makes an unlikely deathbed repentant. But he appears undeterred. In a newspaper interview published last week, the Prime Minister said the changes are needed to remove the “perception” that money buys influence—one that is a lie, he insisted. “There’s absolutely no link,” he said. “But the perception makes the headlines. After that, nothing is established, nothing is proven, but the impression has been created and a cynicism develops.” Prod-

ded, he said he would consider defeat of the bill in the House a vote of non-confidence in his government. “They can defeat me and there’s an election,” he said. “It’s the reality under our Constitution.”

It won’t come to that. One senior government official pointed out that the PM has already softened his proposal to appease the dissenters. And he said the legislation will be studied in committee before becoming law. “The Prime Minister is not contemplating running in another election— he’s looking forward to a quiet, uneventful summer,” said the official. But in the event the Prime Minister’s Office has underestimated how many Liberals might vote against the bill, the opposition parties have given tentative support for the new restrictions. So Chrétien’s government could be saved by the Canadian Alliance, Tories, NDP and Bloc Québécois, all backing financing reform against a rump of Liberals voting against. Unlikely. But a scenario certainly in keeping with this winter’s silly season. 171