Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lobbyists' political gifts come at a price

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Much of the shadowy business known as lobbying is conducted well away from the direct gaze of the public or media. It unfolds in out-of-the-way booths at the finest restaurants, in carts traversing the finest golf courses, or in private boxes at rock concerts and sporting events. And because of how it's offered and accepted, it's rarely subject to punishing publicity.

All that changed in this province when lobbyists and the lobbied started showing up at the MTS Centre, home to the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League. Suddenly, lobbying gained a new and very public notoriety.

The initial focus of ticketgate, or whatever snappy nickname you give this whole mess, was the fact that members of the NDP government accepted free tickets purchased with taxpayer money by Crown corporations. A pretty silly thing for them to do. And yet, perhaps the more important revelation was that politicians accepted tickets from lobbyists and private companies that do business with government.

Energy and Mines Minister Dave Chomiak took tickets from Tundra Oil, a firm active in southwestern Manitoba's growing oil and gas sector. Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau accepted tickets from a private personal-care home. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson took tickets from the Northwest Company, a major supplier to Manitoba's north. Many others took tickets from the Manitoba Home Builders' Association, a frequent party to negotiations on opening up new tracts of land for development. The trend was not limited to provincial politics. City councillors accepted tickets from hotelier Canad Inns, a frequent player in government-supported and incented development in Manitoba.

While disgruntled hockey fans grumble about public money being used to buy Jets tickets, no one can argue that Manitoba Lotteries or the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission was trying to influence government. They are government. However, is there any doubt that Canad Inns or Manitoba Home Builders or the Northwest Company were plying government officials with freebies in exchange for consideration down the road? Not all lobbying has a direct cause-and-effect result. And yet, there is a reason all these lobbyists and private entities spend all sorts of money buying dinner and hockey tickets and greens fees: It produces results. Even if that result is a direct access to and audience with a decision-maker.

Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, argues that the use of taxpayer money to buy hockey tickets is not the central ethical issue. "What makes it unethical and unprofessional for a politician to accept gifts is the fact that such gifts have the strong tendency to bias the judgment of the recipient," Schafer said. "Everyone, with the possible exception of psychopaths, feels a need to reciprocate when someone does us a kindness... Gifts unconsciously skew our judgment in favour of the company or the industry giving the gift."

That is why Schafer, among others, is raising concerns about the refusal of the opposition Progressive Conservatives to reveal whether they accepted tickets from private sources. The Tories have eaten well this past week as they thrash the NDP for the daily humiliation of finding out yet another member of its caucus accepted free tickets. However, they refuse to make any disclosure themselves beyond a claim that no Tory accepted a ticket bought with public money.

Surely, no informed citizen would accept that it is wrong for government MLAs or cabinet ministers to accept free tickets, but it's OK for opposition MLAs, who want to form government, to take freebies. And knowing the natural affinity that Manitoba Home Builders and Canad Inns have with the Tories, it's pretty hard to believe no one on that side of the legislature indulged in free Jets tickets.

Where do we go from here? There will be a tightening of rules regarding the acceptance and disclosure of gifts. But you can be sure that whatever the government hands down, it will not stop the flow of cocktails, sushi platters or tickets to the luxury suite. These are well-cemented traditions, so much so that some politicians see nothing wrong with it. Couns. Paula Havixbeck and Jeff Browaty, for example, were unrepentant about accepting free tickets, arguing it was just the way business is conducted at city hall.

Perhaps, but that's not a good argument for continuing to do it that way.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2012 A7

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