Let’s Focus on Transparency First: Without transparency reducing political donations limits is a red herring

Commentary, Municipal Government, Marco Navarro-Genie

Much media coverage of the controversy about Daryl Katz and people close to him donating nearly half a million dollars to Premier Alison Redford’s governing Progressive Conservative Party election campaign is focusing on further limiting donations to political parties.

The sums that individuals and businesses donate to political parties matter less, however, than do the manner in which these sums are given and are received, or how they’re spent. The focus should be on full transparency.

The supposedly high limit of $30,000 per donor is hardly the problem. Those arguing for lower limits suppose that if instead of the current limit, the rules called for a $10,000 limit, someone with $430,000 to spare would have been corralled into only giving a third of that sum to Redford’s Conservatives.

That’s a red herring. One could find 42 other people in whose name to donate $10,000 for each without much difficulty. Listening to Tory explanations about the grouping of large contributions, it is also clear that if someone wanted to give a million dollars to a party, she could write the names of 34 employees on a list and write a cheque for a million. Rules are but paper barriers to those who don’t want to respect them.

The principal fault here is not in the law and the lack of adequate limit to how much money one can donate. Nor is it even the desire of some to throw their formidable economic weight behind a politician and a recipient feeling entitled to such largesse in order to stop their spooky opponents. These are normal wishes.

The fault line is in lack of greater and timely transparency.

So let’s have a requirement that political donations come out into the open as soon as parties record them, and they go up on their website. Close election donations a few days before the contest.

I bet voters would have wanted to know who was making or grouping very large donations during the last election.

So, let’s be more transparent.

Greater transparency might avoid people thinking that a party that has been in power for so long, steeped in the conviction that the province cannot run without it, can no longer distinguish between what is good for the party and what is good for the province.

It would diminish the apparent stigma that a single source of funding enriches the coffers of the governing party by more than one quarter of its whole intake. The number of people between whom a large donation is supposedly divided and the possibility of a stadium deal notwithstanding, voters could judge when something appears improper right there and then. Political problems are best solved with political, not legal, solutions.

Without assuming any one’s guilt, voting Albertans might also have the opportunity to discuss which parties have been previously accused of receiving or have received questionable or illegal contributions. Earlier this year, we may recall, it was revealed that perhaps as many as 50 provincial public institutions in Alberta made illegal donations to one political party. Among such institutions are municipalities, school boards and universities whose budgets largely depend on provincial funds. Questions about quid pro quo or the expectation of a quid pro quo from such donations might have arisen.

In such a transparent climate, the question of donations of such magnitude to the ruling party, knowing that the Alberta premier receives a regular top-up payment from her party, could then be discussed. The Progressive Conservative Party pays Redford to “reimburse the leaders’ expenses and to support (her) efforts to further the aims of the party,” as party president Bill Smith put it. The premier easily speaks about transparency, but she is less than transparent in refusing to reveal how much she receives from the party.

An investigation is currently underway and the Katz donations will likely be deemed legal, though they remain surrounded by a cloud of apparent impropriety.

In light of such appearances, the premier should practise the transparency that she promises in publishing the full results of the investigation. She should say whether money from the Katz donations has found its way to the party top-up she receives, and she should also reveal how much money she receives from the party.

It would do Redford well to avoid the appearance of being too selective in picking what she wants to be transparent about.