Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grey zone should be black & white

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NDP MLA Deanne Crothers stumbled into a grey zone of ethical political fundraising when she distributed an email to various groups in her St. James riding inviting them to breakfast with Premier Greg Selinger last month.

For $24.99, participants could eat pancakes, meet the premier... and contribute to the party's coffers. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact the invitation was sent to school principals in her riding, community clubs and other organizations that rely, directly or indirectly, on government funding.

Some people may not have known it was an NDP fundraiser, but at least one person -- a community club president -- told Ms. Crothers he was uncomfortable with the invitation and the suggestion he pass it on to the club's board members, some of whom might not be NDP supporters.

The MLA says she knew many of the people who were sent the invitation and it never occurred to her it might be inappropriate to put them in the awkward position of buying a ticket, or possibly being perceived as unsupportive to the ruling party.

Ms. Crothers, who was elected for the first time last year, says the local controversy taught her some valuable lessons, particularly the need to be aware of how people will receive and react to political information.

Indeed, it was unfair, if unintentional, to ask for the support of school principals and others who might feel obliged to contribute, or risk losing access and a sympathetic ear from the party in power.

An NDP spokesman said he believes tougher legislation outlawing the kind of soliciting conducted by Ms. Crothers would be a blunt instrument that would make it difficult for political parties to raise funds from their supporters.

The legislation would have to be overly complex and it would be difficult to administer, enforce and investigate, the party believes.

That's probably all true, but the party spokesman said he recognized Ms. Crothers had entered an area that should be avoided. He called her actions "an innocent mistake."

If the party agrees the St. James MLA should not have sought support broadly from public servants, then it should issue ethical guidelines on the subject. It may not be possible to legislate against every conceivable abuse, but political operatives should be aware that asking a public servant or even a community club president for money, can be interpreted as a threat, which is not acceptable in a modern democracy.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2012 A8

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