Public policy and Liberal Party machinations

Thursday, June 13, 2002 – Page A17

Jean Chrétien, in proposing new ethical guidelines for his government, dealt with what was urgent more than with what is important. Or, to put matters differently, what was important to him became urgent; what is important to Canadian politics can wait, at least for a while.

The Prime Minister has been beset by two problems: his fight for survival within the Liberal Party, and the nagging charges that he acted improperly in contacting a Crown corporation on behalf of a project in his riding.

So, this week, Mr. Chrétien acted on both problems, laying down guidelines for leadership candidates that he hopes, among other objectives, will embarrass rival Paul Martin, and outlining new rules for ministers dealing with Crown corporations.

Neither is insignificant, but leadership campaigns such as the one now going on inside the Liberal Party only come along once in a while. And dealings between ministers and Crown corporations, although important, are not the problems that most contribute to souring public opinion on political shenanigans.

Rather, that souring is rooted more in the murky relationship between money and politics, and in the bending of government decisions, including contracts, to friends of the governing party or constituencies held by that party. There is, too, the whole matter of government appointments, which remain the Prime Minister's prerogative.

Just before releasing these new guidelines, for example, Mr. Chrétien invited hundreds of Liberals to 24 Sussex Dr. These worthies had each paid $1,000 to the party and thereby became members of the Laurier Club, a group with a fancy name whose members gain restricted access to the Prime Minister and senior ministers.

The same sort of private gathering of Laurier Club members occurred several weeks ago just before Mr. Chrétien addressed a fundraising dinner in Winnipeg. Around the same time, worthies willing to cough up $10,000 for the party had gathered in Montreal at the home of Senator Leo Kolber to meet cabinet ministers and Mr. Chrétien, who was detained in Ottawa by the messy business of dismissing Mr. Martin.

These gatherings create the impression that money buys access and influence, and the Liberals are more dependent on corporate contributions than the other parties. That's the same kind of conundrum faced by the federal NDP. As long as the New Democrats remain tied to union money, voters will believe that unions call too many shots inside the party. That perception won't go away after the Canadian Labour Congress's affiliated unions decided this week to keep funnelling money to the NDP.

The most potentially important aspect of Mr. Chrétien's announcement was the one that received the least attention: a willingness to let Parliament review this autumn how parties are financed.

These ideas include limiting (but, alas, not eliminating) corporate and union contributions, changing the tax code to encourage individual contributions, and developing "if necessary" ways of providing more public support for parties to replace reduced private contributions.

No one knows what, if anything, will come of these possibilities.

But at least the Prime Minister has opened the path toward substantial reform of something that can bother Canadians about politics.

What Mr. Chrétien did not do -- as promised in 1993 by the Liberals in their Red Book -- was create an independent ethics commissioner. He merely empowered the ethics counsellor to make an annual report to Parliament and to seek opposition party approval for the counsellor's five- year term.

Only an independent commissioner can win the public's trust. Otherwise, no matter how honourable the ethics counsellor, he will still be viewed as the Prime Minister's man. It's urgent that this change be made, so that Ottawa's practices mirror those in most provinces where the person supervising ethics is responsible to the legislature.

As for the leadership rules, they were long overdue. How leadership candidates raise money, who gives it to them, and what they receive (if anything) in return has usually remained in the shadows. It's a fine change that these donations will now be made public.

Since the rules will apply only to cabinet ministers, and Mr. Martin is no longer one of those, the Prime Minister obviously hopes to shame his rival into complying, the presumption being that the former finance minister has bags of money and will be raising plenty more in the months ahead.

Get ready for more of this: the co-mingling of public policy with the machinations of the de facto Liberal Party leadership race. This won't be the last Chrétien decision with the objective of painting Mr. Martin into a corner.
Well said. Until things change, Canadian citizens are just a bunch of sheep! So say baaaa while you take it up the...!

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