07 February 2014

Following the Money #nlpoli

After Bill Barry  - the only declared candidate -  former cabinet minister Shawn Skinner is the least imaginary of the potential candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“What I’m running for is to form the next government,”  Skinner told the Telegram’s James McLeod.  What I am running for.  Present tense.  Definitive. 

Not what I am thinking about running for.  Not what I might run for.

What I am running for.

And yet Skinner hasn’t actually announced that he is running.  The main reason he gave to the Telegram is understandable:  the party hasn’t announced the rules for the contest yet.

One of the rules Skinner is particularly concerned about is the spending limit for the campaign.

The Debt Burden

Skinner told the Telegram he’s heard rumblings that the party executive will raise the limit currently set down in the party constitution at $200,000.

“I think $200,000 is realistic. I think I could raise $200,000. I don’t know if I could raise $400,000 or $500,000,” he said.

Skinner’s not the only one thinking about how expensive a campaign might get.  Some of the other candidates who turn up in the popular speculation are rumoured to be hesitating about jumping into the race out of fear that they might have trouble raising the cash to wage the fight against someone like Bill Barry.

Even if they think they could raise the sort of cash a serious candidate might need,  candidates will have to consider the impact of having a huge personal debt if they lose.  Winners have no trouble settling up their debts.  Money tends to flow easily once one is in power.  But the losers can have a bit of a challenge. 

The debt burden is looking heavy on some minds, apparently. The Telegram said that Skinner is “worried about running up a serious debt if he doesn’t win.”  He should be.  Federal Liberal leadership candidates from 2006 and the more recent contest have all had trouble paying back the loans they took out to help fund their bids. 

There’s no greater fraud, and all that

While likely Conservative leadership candidates have been fretting how expensive the Premier’s job could be,  CBC has been reporting this week about the provincial Conservative Party’s 2003 promise to reform the province’s laws on campaign finances. 

They made the promise in February that year and once they were in power in October the same year, the Conservatives didn’t do anything about their promise.  Well, that is, if you consider ignoring the promise as not doing something.

The campaign finance changes the Conservatives promised to make included limits on donations to political parties and all sorts of new rules about party leadership campaigns. 

SRBP told you all about it in 2009.  There was a bit more to the issue, though, than just the fact the Conservatives had promised one thing and done something else. 

The Growth of Corporate Power and Influence

For one thing, money and power go together. In the absence of any rules and limits on political donations, it becomes all too easy for the people with bags of money to control the political agenda. Even in a place with more modern campaign finance laws than we have in Newfoundland and Labrador, the potential for money to breed political corruption of one sort of another is powerful. 

Then there’s the other side of the coin, so to speak, of the the way that money can distort what happens in politics.  Think of the 2006 constituency allowances scandal (patronage politics) and the lure of soft money.

On a more pragmatic front,  we were overdue for campaign finance reforms in 2003.  The Liberals brought in the first rules ever in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1991.  A decade and a bit later, and we needed to make sure that the law kept pace with what the parties were up to.  What the Conservatives proposed was the right sort of thing to do.  Unfortunately, they didn’t do anything except pick off a few tokens to say they’d done something of what they’d promised.

You can see what actually happened in a series of posts at SRBP or in the patterns uncovered by the evil genius who goes by the nom de guerre Labradore.  Two posts in particular come to mind with this unruled leadership race underway.  One was a short note at SRBP that the companies who did all the capital works the provincial was buying were also the group who gave the most cash to political parties, mostly the governing Conservatives.

The other was a post at labradore that described changes in the pattern of donations.  Many more corporate donations and far fewer donations by individuals. In 2010,  74% of the donations to political parties came from corporations while less than 20% came from individuals. 

In fact, in some districts in Newfoundland and Labrador these days, no one gives cash to any of the political parties.  Not one,  except for the incumbent member of the House.  Labradore found there were five such districts.  In 18 districts,  private individuals donated a combined total of less than $1,000.

You can see that trend reflected in Premier Tom Marshall’s record of campaign donations from the 2011 general election.  About $7,000 of the $56,000 Marshall raised came from individuals.  Marshall received about $25,000 from construction companies and a total of $32,500 came from just six companies.

Follow the money

As the provincial Conservative leadership contest unfolds over the next five months,  pay attention to the campaign financing.  You may hear a bit more about in the conventional media.  You may not.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how much money comes from corporations and which candidates their money favours.

The trends in political contributions over the past decade have diminished the influence of individuals in our local political system.  As it seems, that same trend could be limiting the ability of some potential candidates to raise the kind of money they’d need to compete in the leadership.  They might not enter the race as a result.

Imagine how different things might be these days if the Conservatives had kept their promises in 2003.