When Money Talks, Democracy Has No Voice
By: Ryan Young
There was quite a bit of talk about political finance reform going around the province last week. Both NDP leader, Earle McCurdy and former Premier, Tom Marshall spoke out publicly in favor of getting rid of large corporate and union donations to political parties. This comes in the wake of a Telegram article that reported Corner Brook Pulp and Paper as being the Liberal’s largest corporate donor, at the same time that the provincial government was making a deal with the company to shore up their pension plan.
Now I am certainly not suggesting that the two have anything to do with each other. In fact, the recent pension deal seems to be a good one for both the province and the company. If there was any issue with the deal at all, it would have to be from the original deal signed under the previous administration. The problem is that in politics, optics are everything and when you see the government making deals with large political donors, it can’t help but breed cynicism and contempt. It is exactly why a large portion of our population think that all politicians are crooks.
An old adage says that when money talks, democracy has no voice. The truth of that statement might be debatable among political circles, but the electorate take it to heart. As far as the average voter in Newfoundland and Labrador are concerned, we are still living under a merchant class system. How could we ever convince them that we are not? Maybe I am naïve in thinking that corruption in politics is the exception rather than the rule, but it is not hard to understand why many people feel differently. As long as the government is doing big money deals with big time political donors, the idea that politicians are crooks will be a hard one to break.
One of the things that really breeds contempt for the system is the way that donors change their allegiances (and their donations) depending on which party is in power or is expected to take power soon. From a voter’s perspective, the only reasonable assumption is that these donations are not made based on political views but on the hope of being in the good books of the governing party when it comes time to divvy out government contracts. Democracy Watch has called our political finance system nothing more than “legalized bribery,” and by all accounts it seems like the majority of our elected officials are quite fine with that label and the status quo.
On an even more disturbing note, it was also reported in the Telegram last week that the St. John’s Board of Trade will be hosting a cash-for-access fundraiser that will give anyone willing to shell out $500 for the opportunity to mingle with the premier and a handful of ministers and federal MP’s. The premier’s office says that it will be a valuable opportunity to meet with business leaders and that they consider all requests seeking the premier’s participation in fundraising activities. MP Nick Whalen has compared it to a “charity fundraiser.” According to James Mcleod, Whalen said: “When people talk about cash-for-access, they mean cash for the politicians for access to the politicians. They don’t mean a charity fundraiser.” I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Whalen on that point since the members who pay the fee get direct access to key decision makers in government. That sounds like cash-for-access to me and the whole thing does not seem to be sitting well with the public at large.
Fixing this problem is so easy that it is ridiculous that it has not been done already Either remove, or place a sensible cap on all donations to political parties. That way there can be no preferential treatment for the biggest donors because no individual, corporation or union would be able to donate any more than any other. Our democracy should not be dependent on who can raise the most campaign dollars or spend the most money on lobbying for favorable contracts or legislation. Confidence in our political system is at an all time low, as evidenced by the record low voter turnout in the last election and the dismal approval ratings of all three parties. It’s time to take the first and easiest step in renewing confidence in our democracy and take the money out of politics once and for all.