Geoff Plant was British Columbia's attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practices law with Gall Legge Grant & Munroe in Vancouver.
A growing chorus of voices calls for an end to what are derisively called "cash for access" political fundraisers. Most recently, Ontario's Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to ban politicians from attending them. Respectfully, I dissent.
One such event that recently caught the public's attention is a private federal Liberal Party fundraiser in Halifax attended by a small group of donors who paid $1,500 each. The featured guest was Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Two points of context. One, the law of Canada encourages individuals to donate up to $1,500 a year to political parties by granting a tax credit. Two, fundraising dinners are – and always have been – a basic feature of our democratic landscape.
What is the difference between a big-ticket fundraiser attended by a very small group and a large-scale fundraiser with hundreds of people in the crowd? In both cases, the attendees are there to be supportive and be seen as supportive. And at every table at every one of those events, large or small, people are hoping that the guest of honour, be it a premier, a cabinet minister or a candidate, will take a moment to stop by, shake hands and engage in conversation on the issues that concern them.
Of course, with only a dozen guests, there is every likelihood of a longer discussion of those issues. The difference, if any, is only one of degree. In every case, the name on the invitation – the politician – is the reason for the event, and the reason people attend. It is not just political fundraisers. It is also the dinner in support of a community charity, where the local politicians are seated at the head table, and a long line of ticket-buying attendees wait to buttonhole their MP about their favourite cause.
There is no meaningful distinction between someone who buys a table at a dinner for 500 people and someone who spends the same amount on a single ticket for a much smaller event.
A high ticket price obviously excludes many who might like to share their views with a cabinet minister, but that is as true for the $100 dinner as it is for the $1,500 dinner.
What is missing from this discussion is any consideration of a more fundamental question: If not this, then how are we to pay for our electoral politics?
Elections are expensive. At the constituency level, it is not unusual to spend more than $200,000 on a federal campaign. At the national level, the two major parties each spent at least $40-million in the 2015 election. Campaign costs are already heavily subsidized by the federal government. But unless we want the taxpayer to foot the entire bill for our political process – a policy direction that should be resisted – parties will need to raise funds, just as they have always done.
No doubt, many donate to political parties out of a sense of altruism. They sincerely support a party or candidate, and want to help them succeed. But almost no one donates to a party they do not support. Alignment between the donor and the recipient is the whole point. If the party breaks faith with its donors, the donations will likely stop. In that sense, every political donation – whether it's a dinner ticket, a reply to an e-mail, or a promise made during a phone call solicitation – has an element of "pay to play." It is basic to the process.
Of course, as the amount increases, so do the stakes, and the risks. To lose a major donor is potentially to experience a major setback. This, again, is how our system has always operated. We remember the occasions of actual corruption – in which someone really did buy a government decision or appointment – because there are so few of them. Every politician can tell you of the decisions they made that alienated their closest supporters but, more importantly, connected with the electorate, where real power ultimately resides. Money matters, it even makes politics possible, but it does not buy our politicians.
Ban politicians from these events, as Ontario's Ms. Wynne has now promised to do? That would isolate them from an important source of ideas, inspiration and criticism, namely their supporters. And it is worse than naive to pretend that those who want access will not find a way to get it. The dinner (or other event – say, a "stakeholder consultation" session organized by the local party, or some other community organization, for a select group of local citizens) will be free, and the call for a donation will come afterward. Draw a line between, say, the $100 dinner ticket and the $1,000 ticket? The line would be arbitrary, easy to evade and expensive to enforce.
The answer is not prohibition, but transparency. Continue to require full disclosure of all donors and donations. Encourage media scrutiny and public discussion about who is donating and why. There is a level at which donations are so high they bring both donor and recipient into disrepute. Let the criminal law deal with those thankfully rare occasions of real corruption. But let the dinners continue – rubber chicken and all – and let voters be the judge of how much is too much.