Winnipeg MP Pat Martin scoffs at the idea that it is influence buying for unions to help him pay down a "massive" debt he ran up to settle a defamation suit. In Martin's words, he couldn't possibly be any more of a friend to unions, so what's the harm.
The obvious problem lies in the fact that he wasn't elected to represent unions or their interests in Ottawa and perhaps his constituents in Winnipeg Centre will send that message loud and clear next election. The broader issue, however, is that while technically meeting the letter of the law on conflict for MPs, this financial assistance clearly shows how tight are the ties that bind the MP and unions.
The various unions dominate the top contributors -- those who donated $500 or more -- to a trust fund established to help the NDP MP pay down his legal bills, and the cost of the out-of-court settlement with automated calling firm RackNine, which sued him for $5 million after he made intemperate remarks about the company during a brewing robocall scandal following the 2011 federal election. The money will also help repay the federal NDP, which gave Mr. Martin a loan to pay his bills.
As long as a "gift" or "benefit" cannot be seen to influence an MP's work in office, it is legal under the members of Parliament conflict code. Mr. Martin says he has had the payments cleared through the ethics commissioner's office, which, he noted, forced him to return more than $20,000 in contributions to donors. It bears noting the code requires an MP to declare the names of donors having given more than $500 -- no detail on how much Mr. Martin's trust fund raised, nor the value of each donation.
Letter of the law aside, the optics are terrible, and the arrangement is rank with hypocrisy. Mr. Martin may wield little influence over federal public policy and legislation, but he would be the first to cast aspersions on the reputations and motives of any Conservative or Liberal who worked similar deals to repay legal debts, and decry an ethics code that permitted it.
The NDP has in recent years painted itself as a serious contender for government. Mr. Martin's too-cozy relationship with unions in Canada shows precisely whose interests some in the party represent. Having bailed out this man from what sounds to be a near-ruinous debt, the unions would not simply allow a government member to cut loose such ties and make their interests a lesser priority. That is something voters, particularly those of Winnipeg Centre, should remember.