Thursday, June 08, 2006

Liberal leadership hopefuls hit money hurdles

VICTORIA - Just when the Harper government was looking a little rattled, along comes Joe Volpe to remind voters what they don't like about the Liberals.
The Conservatives looked to be stumbling this week, re-opening the pointless debate on gay marriage.
Pointless because given Stephen Harper's promise not to use the notwithstanding clause to override the charter of rights, the government can't actually do anything to stop same-sex marriages.
And anyway, same-sex marriages have been a fact for almost a year now. Nothing bad has happened. People have quit talking about the issue showing how irrelevant it was in the first place. The Conservatives, by dredging it up, revive fears that the party is intolerant and prescriptive. At the same time, they appear to be badly out of touch with the real concerns of Canada - Afghanistan, health care, crime.
But Harper didn't have to worry. The Volpe affair - and Liberal leadership fundraising issues generally - raised bigger questions about the Liberals.
Volpe is an Ontario MP who is one of 11 official candidates for the Liberal leadership. All the hopefuls are scrambling to raise money. The party demands $50,000 before candidates are allowed on the ballot. Then there's the cost of flying around the country to seek support, paid staff, mailings. Candidates are allowed spend up to $3.4 million; after the first $500,000 they will have to send $10,000 to the party for every $40,000 they spend.
But this is the first leadership race run under new financing rules that bar corporate and union donations and limit individual donations to $5,400.
Volpe's campaign was supported by a group of 20 people who all gave the maximum. Ten of them were current or former executives with one pharmaceutical company; the other 10 were their family members.
Including 11-year-old twins and their 14-year-old brother, who were among five minors who contributed $5,400 each.
Volpe didn't see anything wrong with that. The law doesn't bar minors from contributing. If a couple of Grade 6 kids to decide on their own to hand $5,400 each to his campaign instead of buying hockey cards, so what? He spoke at their school, Volpe said. Maybe they were really impressed.
And it's true - minors can contribute. But it is an offence to make a donation that really comes from another person or to plot to get around the limits.
Volpe eventually returned the kids' money, but he still saw nothing wrong with taking $5,400 cheques from children. "All the donations for our campaign have been in compliance with the law," he said. "We wanted to clear the air and public perception."
The Liberal party response was just as weird. Party brass defended the donations and rejected calls for an investigation.
Have the lost their minds? The Liberals were booted from office in part because of fund-raising scandals. A leadership campaign that reminds voters of past wrongs would be disastrous.
And they look to be risking that. Donations are limited by law. Loans are not. And nine of the 11 candidates - all except Volpe - have borrowed between $30,000 and $200,000 from backers to fund their campaigns. Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison borrowed $200,000 from four men with major business interests in the province. The theory is that the loans will be repaid from donations, but candidates can ask for repeated extensions on the repayment deadline. The potential for abuse - for using loans as a way to get around donation limits - is immense.
Candidates do face a tough fund-raising challenge now that corporate donations are barred. (Paul Martin raised more than $10 million for his leadership campaign, largely from corporate donors.)
There are too many of them, with no clear frontrunners, and the new leader could spend the next five years at least in opposition.
But Canadians are watching to see if the Liberals have learned from the sponsorship scandal. The last week has suggested they haven't.
Footnote: The field may shrink after two leadership debates. The first, in English will be this Saturday in Winnipeg; a French-language debate will follow June 17 in Moncton. The debates won't be decisive, but they will provide an occasion for all candidates to assess their chances.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt that Volpe should have been severely tossed for the escapade, which puts the whole party back 10 yards. But i'll disagree with your assessment on the loans for now -- can you try and get the names of the donors to Harpor's initial successful leadership run? I'm betting many names there will and are turning up on prominent payback contracts, plus there is the serious stench of neo-con Republican hooligans planting their footprints all over what use to be Johnny Mac's party (removed twice). If I was a real Canadian conservative, i'd be a little miffed at the direction Harpor is guiding this ship -- right into a Bushian iceberg.