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A staff worker fixes flags before the first news conference of Canadian premiers at the 55th Annual Premiers' Conference in Charlottetown August 27, 2014. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

Once again, the annual gathering of provincial and territorial government leaders known as the Premiers' Conference, under way this week in Charlottetown, is being paid for in large part by corporate sponsorships. This is government brought to you by "insert sponsor name here." And it's dead wrong.

This has been going on for more than a decade, and we are not the first to complain about it. But this year it has hit new heights of indecency: Companies, industry associations and unions are paying more than $500,000, in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $150,000, to be listed as sponsors. They include the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada, Bell Canada (parent BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail), Manulife, CN, Merck, Coca-Cola Canada, Labatt, the Canadian Labour Congress, Unifor and CUPE.

In marketing terms, it is the equivalent of the sponsorship deals at every major sporting event, except that the quid pro quo expected by the sponsors in Charlottetown is not public visibility – it's private access to the premiers.

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Lobbying is, of course, a legitimate part of government as long as the rules are followed. Ottawa and all the provinces (except, notably, PEI) have adopted or at least tabled lobby registration acts. Donations to political parties are also limited; federally, corporations and unions can't give directly to the parties. These laws are there to ensure transparency and level the playing field.

But corporations and unions actually giving money directly to government in exchange for the chance to attend an exclusive dinner and social event with provincial leaders? In what world is that defensible?

The premiers argue that they are saving taxpayers' money. This is a fool's errand. There is no end to the money governments could save if they sought sponsorship for their gatherings. Imagine the Tim Hortons Parliament Building Featuring the Labatt House of Commons and the Senate (Brought to You by Cialis). If you think we're going too far, note that the top sponsorship level ($150,000) at this year's conference is called "Fathers of Confederation."

Government business should be carried out at government expense, period. The 13 premiers purport to meet annually in order to foster closer personal ties and better intergovernmental relations, all in the name of strengthening Canada. If this is a valuable conference, it should be paid for by taxpayers. If it can't be justified as a worthwhile expense, it should be abandoned or cut back in scale or frequency. Do it in a high-school gym under a basketball net, if you have to. But please let this be the last year that the Premiers' Conference is worth more to special interests than it is to Canadians.

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