Buying Influence? Political Donations from Corporations and Labour

An election is coming up so political donations have once again begun making news.
Victoria Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines wrote about the latest figures, and Vaughn Palmer followed with a column comparing Liberal reliance on corporate money with NDP reliance on individuals.

Both articles focused on the tired old spin that Liberals get corporate money and the NDP is labour’s darling, albeit less so than in the past.

The numbers speak for themselves:

  • Over 71% of the reported donations to the Liberal Part in 2003-2004 came from business and corporations (67% between 1996-2002);
  • Only 14% of NDP donations came from labour.

While labour’s influence over the NDP is constantly hyped by the Liberals and the media, corporate influence over the Liberals tends to go unchallenged. I have yet to see a story in the mainstream press questioning whether corporate donations have made the Liberals beholden to the corporate sector. Or a column considering whether these corporate donations influenced the Liberals’ position on specific issues.

Given the uniformly pro-corporate schemes being tabled by the current government, some real investigative reporting might uncover interesting connections between big corporate donors and the beneficiaries of government decisions.

In fact, a close look at big corporate donors last year (and since 1996) raises questions about the influence donations have on government policy. For example, the Liberals were given $27,340 in 2004 by forestry giant Weyerhaeuser Canada Ltd and $23,153. by the TimberWest Forest Group.

Coincidentally, these two big donors reaped windfall profits when the Liberal government approved six privatizations of land formerly in tree farm licences. The two big donors benefited from half the privatizations (3 of 6), accounting for almost 98% of the land privatized (The lands were privately owned; the privatization was the removal of the regulated FL’s, and the tenure from public oversight.)

As a result of the privatization, 87,700 hectares of Weyerhaeuser land and 2,600 hectares of TimberWest’s lands are now subject to weaker laws that provide virtually no protection for Aboriginal interests, streams, fish, or wildlife. The Forest Minister’s approval also facilitates Weyerhaeuser’s and TimberWest’s plan to export raw logs. The lands can also be subdivided and sold for millions.

At the time the decision to privatize these lands made no sense. The public was overwhelmingly opposed, and the Hupacasath First Nation had warned it would sue. (The Hupacasath have since filed their lawsuit.) It is disappointing that there have been no stories asking whether the fact that Weyerhaeuser donated $448,093 and TimberWest donated $201,008 to the Liberals between 1996 and 2004 had some influence. After all, those donation figures rank Weyerhaeuser and TimberWest second and eleventh respectively among the Liberal party’s donors since reporting was required in 1996.

Other big liberal donors also benefited from various government actions over the past year. For example, EnCana Corp. donated $41,890 to the Liberals and benefited both by acquiring $418,000,000 in drilling rights in just one month, but also from various subsidies, royalty reduction and de-regulation initiatives and other pro fossil fuel industry schemes that the government has implemented to ratchet up exploration and drilling in BC.

That brings us to Campbell confidant and business tycoon Jimmy Pattison, who gave the Liberals $55,000 through various corporations. It is little known that Jimmy is among the biggest exploiters of resources in BC. Because of his holdings in Canfor (Canada’s largest logging company), Westshore Terminals (North America’s busiest coal export terminal), Canadian Fishing Company (the largest salmon canner in Canada, and exporter of herring roe products from North America), Pattison’s companies have been major beneficiaries of the Liberal government’s ongoing efforts to roll back labour and environmental laws.

Now I’m not saying that the big donors or the Liberals have done anything illegal. I’m just commenting on the unusual synergy between big donors and beneficiaries of government policies.

Randy Cohen, The ethicist who writes a weekly column in the New York Times Magazine recently commented on the role donations play in the political process. He said,

Ah, yes, the elusive difference between ”campaign contribution” and ”bribe.” (As confounding a linguistic challenge as parsing the difference between ”bald” and ”balding.”) Various election laws describe what is permissible, but that merely defines the rules of the game; it does not get at the game’s essential unfairness. x0Ax0AWhile a formal quid pro quo of cash for services is generally illegal, even without such an explicit and vulgar promise many who make a big donation to a candidate clearly expect a return on their money, not just the election of someone who shares a political philosophy. Otherwise, we’d never see people donating to both candidates in a race. And it is beyond question that a big contribution buys access and influence, i.e., that it accomplishes what a bribe would, often rendering the two morally indistinguishable.

Perhaps as we move closer to the election, reporters will look beyond the clichs and examine more closely the influence corporations and labour have on the Liberals and NDP.

n the future, perhaps we can avoid speculation about undue influence and favoritism by rewriting the province’s election laws to allow only individuals to donate to political parties. The NDP currently endorses this new approach; the Liberals do not.

Banning contributions from corporations and unions may become one major step in returning power where it belongs, to the people. Manitoba Quebec and perhaps the federal government are taking that step. Perhaps this will yet become an election issue in BC.

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