With an election just over a year away, the B.C. Liberal fundraising machine has shifted into high gear. And one of the more lucrative revenue streams the party has found is small, intimate gatherings at which guests can get potentially valuable face time with the most influential politician in the province – Premier Christy Clark.
But it does not come cheap.
At a recent dinner hosted by Simon Fraser University chancellor Anne Giardini, 10 guests paid $10,000 each to mingle with Ms. Clark and later sit down to a multicourse dinner. At a party fundraiser in Kelowna, a small group who paid $5,000 each got quality time with the Premier at a non-advertised, private reception before the main event. According to a source, admission to some of the more exclusive get-togethers with Ms. Clark can be as high as $20,000.
While such events do not contravene campaign finance laws, they raise ethical considerations and questions of transparency and optics. They also highlight a political system in which access to those in the country's highest offices is tilted radically in favour of those with money.
The B.C. Liberals refuse to disclose who is paying a premium for the opportunity to spend rare time with the Premier.
Revelations of the elite audiences come amid controversy across the country about comparable events. In Ontario, questions were raised over a private fundraising soirée that Premier Kathleen Wynne held with insiders from the province's energy industry. Price tag: $5,000 a person.
In Alberta recently, the ethics commissioner was called in to rule on a couple of fundraising events that involved Premier Rachel Notley. While commissioner Marguerite Trussler found that the Premier did not break any provincial laws by being associated with the private gatherings – one was cancelled amid the political furor – she said in her ruling that "the perception that only a chosen few are being invited is best avoided." She added that, in the interests of transparency, fundraising events should, as a rule, be open to the public.
Ms. Trussler also found that Ms. Notley's staff was less than forthright about the Premier's role as a guest speaker at a private, $10,000-a-plate fundraising dinner hosted by Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
Ms. Giardini said she did not feel "comfortable" talking about the dinner she hosted in B.C. She would not say how much people paid to attend or who was there. (The Globe and Mail independently verified that attendees paid $10,000 each.)
Ms. Giardini, whose husband is mining executive Tony Giardini, said she was "not a political person" and speaks often about "the need to support women in politics."
"It's always interesting for me to see when women get particularly targeted by this kind of story, I've got to be honest," the chancellor said. "I think that is the real story. I think women in particular have a very hard time raising money to be in politics, and I've observed over the years that when women try and raise money, this kind of story follows."
Asked if she believed this is a gender issue and not a question of paying to get special access to a powerful politician, Ms. Giardini said, "Yes, I think it is."
Ms. Clark was not available for comment. However, a spokesman for her office, Ben Chin, released the following statement: "The Premier meets with and hears from British Columbians from all parts of our province as she works to create jobs and opportunities in B.C. from a growing economy."
Bob Rennie, chair of fundraising for the B.C. Liberals, estimated that between now and the election next May, the party might organize 20 or more of the type of small, intimate gatherings at which people can pay big money to get special access to Ms. Clark. Far from having a difficult time raising money for his friend, Mr. Rennie confirmed that he has helped raise nearly $5-million since he took over as her chief party fundraiser four years ago.
That has allowed the Liberals to retire their debt from the last election – estimated to be more than $3-million – and begin building a formidable war chest for next year's campaign.
Asked about the perception that people with money are buying privileged and potentially financially beneficial access, Mr. Rennie said those paying $10,000 or more to attend these intimate functions are often business leaders who support what the Liberals are doing and want to help ensure the party stays in power.
He confirmed the party would not release the names of those attending these functions. He said if individual donors want to go public, that is up to them.
"It costs money for those Vote for Me signs and it costs money to get the message across," Mr. Rennie, a real estate marketer in Vancouver, said. "How do you do that? Well, traditionally you have fundraisers where politicians can talk about their platform and where the province is going. So it's business as usual."
He said the tête-à-têtes with the Premier do not violate any campaign financing laws.
B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan said they raise moral questions, however. "I can understand why the public might think that the Premier is selling access to her position at these private dinners. It seems like an issue of ethics. The B.C. Liberals raise a substantial amount of their money this way, and it makes the public question whether they are working in the public interest or for their donors. That is why we want to take big money out of politics."
Mr. Horgan confirmed in an interview with The Globe and Mail that his party has organized a fundraising breakfast that will cost attendees $2,000. The Opposition leader said he is doing it because "the field is the field. … These are the ground rules as they exist, and the Liberals are doing this sort of thing on a far, far bigger scale than we are." He said if the NDP forms government next year, his party will review these types of fundraising activities.
"You're entitled to support a political party," Mr. Horgan said. "You're not entitled to buy access."