Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Political party spending should not be black hole

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BRANDON -- It's your money. You deserve to know how it is being spent.

Last week, media reports disclosed Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin was the recipient of donations from labour unions and others to fund the settlement of a defamation lawsuit brought against him.

Donors to Martin's defence fund include the federal NDP Caucus Fund, the United Steelworkers, CUPE, the Canadian Labour Congress, along with other labour organizations and union locals.

Last weekend, it was reported the Peterborough Conservative riding association has not ruled out subsidizing the legal expenses of MP Dean Del Mastro, who is being prosecuted for alleged violations of the Elections Act.

On one hand, dues paid by union members have been donated to Martin's fund without the prior knowledge or consent of ordinary members. On the other hand, taxpayer funds (paid to political parties through income tax credits for donations) may be used to pay for Del Mastro's defence.

None of this is illegal.

Indeed, Martin obtained approvals for his defence fund from numerous federal agencies. Elections Canada confirms it has no control over how political parties spend their funds between campaigns, nor are the parties obligated to publicly disclose precisely what those monies are spent on.

These actions may not be illegal, but that does not make them acceptable -- a point the parties involved implicitly acknowledge as they condemn each others' conduct.

"NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair needs to explain why his MPs are taking political donations from union bosses to bail them out of their legal troubles," says Conservative party director of communications Cory Hann. He did not respond to a request, however, to explain why a Conservative riding association would consider helping bail Del Mastro out of his legal troubles.

Brandon-Souris NDP byelection candidate Cory Szczepanski says, "I'll leave it up to the Conservative party and local riding associations to determine if they believe Mr. Del Mastro's legal defence for the serious charges he's facing for alleged violations of the Elections Act is really how they want to spend their money."

That's a cute shot at the Tories, but Szczepanski is the head of the United Steelworkers local in Brandon. He will likely be pressed during the upcoming byelection campaign to explain if Martin's defence fund is really how his members wanted their union dues spent.

With no dog in the fight, Green party leader Elizabeth May takes a more pragmatic approach to the issue. "There is a justification for assisting in legal costs when the elected official's lawsuit is directly a result of their duties in public office," she says. "It is harder to justify paying costs for the reckless and hotheaded, however. Guidelines would be helpful."

May is correct we cannot allow the work of elected officials to be stymied by the spectre of strategic lawsuits against public participation.

That problem can be avoided by Parliament extending a limited form of immunity or privilege to elected officials for good-faith statements made by them for the purpose of advancing the public interest.

It would eliminate the need for MPs' defence funds such as Martin's.

Though the problem of tactical lawsuits can be addressed by legislation, the issue of questionable spending by political parties on other items remains.

Canadians contribute millions of dollars in subsidies to political parties annually. They are entitled to know how all that money is spent.

Mandatory guidelines and controls are an option, but any rules approved by the parties would likely be so full of loopholes as to be useless. A more realistic choice is regular reports by the parties, setting out their expenditures in full "open data" detail.

With that information in hand, every Canadian with an Internet connection becomes a potential auditor, capable of publicly exposing boneheaded spending decisions by the parties.

It's a low-cost, high-accountability solution that could be voluntarily implemented by any of the parties within a few days. The other parties would have no choice but to eventually follow suit.

It's not even a novel idea -- the Liberals are trying it in the context of their MPs' expenses. Why not also disclose party expenses?

Transparency and accountability is continually promised by our political parties, but it shouldn't be so slow in coming. It's time for a party to show leadership by taking the simple steps necessary to give Canadians the information they deserve.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2013 A15

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