Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Party financing law invites fraud

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Scandal after scandal after scandal. When and where will it end?

Since the enactment of laws regulating donations to political parties, restriction on spending during elections and public financing of election campaigns and political parties, we have witnessed a continual stream of violations, irregularities and breaches committed by people who normally conduct themselves with relative integrity.

But none of the violations quite compare with blatant fund grabbing which was attempted by the NDP in the provincial election of 1999.

Briefly, the NDP claimed a 50 per cent contribution for union personnel who had participated in the campaign as volunteers provided by the labour unions.

A total of $76,000 was paid to the party out of public funds but was then refunded at the demand of Elections Manitoba.

The fact that a fiddle of this magnitude could be covered up for nine years is another story that bears investigation.

But now that the cat is out of the bag, isn't it time to take stock of why people who are normally honest and law-abiding suddenly resort to deviousness, subterfuge and down-right thievery?

The sickness is not confined to one political party. Everybody's doing it. If everybody is involved, and laws are being broken or manipulated right and left, isn't it fair to say that nothing is wrong with the people, but something critical is wrong with the law.

The aristocracy in France dismissed the grievances of the people as coming from the sans-culottes (without breaches). Carlyle in his history profoundly remarked, "When 20 million are sans culottes it becomes the thing to wear."

As long as there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there will be people clambering to get to it.

Every political party has special staff whose main responsibility is to look at the numerous statutes regulating financial affairs and figuring out how they can be taken advantage of.

My former colleague, Ben Hanuschak, playfully hypothesized how one cheque for $100 properly endorsed from contributor to party and endorsed to campaign worker and then back again to party, on 30 successive occasions with proper receipts given, could result in an expense to the party of $3,000, 50 per cent of which would be rebated by the government and 30 people would get tax refunds of $75 each.

It would probably not affect the legality of the scheme if the cheque were NSF in the first place.

Needless to say the plan never went into operation but equally spurious systems are available and some have been used.

What is more, as long as we have the laws the scandals will continue. But the real scandal is the laws themselves, even if there were a system of enforcing them so that abuse would not occur. There is no way of undoing the abuse which requires people to finance parties whose policies are repugnant to them.

There is no way of providing a remedy for the fact that every citizen is prevented from promoting their own opinion and financially supporting candidates running for office without being regulated by the government if they do so.

Political party financing was supposed to enhance the democratic process. It has not done so. Indeed, the financing legislation has corrupted the process and the latest exposure of the NDP gimmick has demonstrated this.

The NDP was always the strongest advocate for public funding. It always felt that its failure at the polls was the result of the financial resources of the other parties as compared with itself. Many members naively believed that their lack of funds made them purer than the others.

Well, they can no longer claim purity. If we want to end the continuing scandals related to political party financing we can do so if we take the following steps:

"ö Eliminate all statutory references to political parties and return to the pre-1960 days when we elected representatives who freely associated with each other to create groups by themselves.

"ö End all public funding to political parties and candidates for office.

"ö Eliminate all legislation restricting donations to political parties and election spending.

If we did these things we would revert to the democratic system we had for more than 100 years. It was not without fault but nothing human ever is. But we would eliminate the incentive to do wrong which the legislation now offers.

To be fair to the NDP, it is not alone in its attempts to take unfair advantage of the legislation. Every party has been involved. And we cannot put the blame on evil-doers. By doing so we will be creating evil doers of people who have normally conducted themselves with integrity. If we are to look for the cause of the blame we could take a lesson from Lincoln Steffans, the early 20th century journalist and muckraker.

In talking to a clergyman about "the root of all evil," Steffans said. "Some people blamed Adam. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent and that's where you clergy have been stuck ever since. Now I tell you, that it was, and it is the apple."

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2009 A10

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