There are two ways of thinking about it:
- Dwight Ball put his money where his mouth is, and paid $11,000 to stick to his principles, or…
- Dwight Ball paid $11,000 out of his own pocket to make a political problem go away.
On Monday morning, Ball released his campaign finance information, and to his credit, he was more open and transparent than any other candidate up to that point. (Liberal leadership also-ran Danny Dumaresque matched Ball’s level of transparency by putting out his own campaign finance information less than an hour after Ball’s info was sent out. In fact, you could argue that Dumaresque was more committed to transparency than Ball, but that’s a long story for another day.)
Anyway, good on Ball. In his Liberal leadership acceptance speech, he only actually talked about one single, solitary public policy issue. Amid all the rhetoric and slogans, in his acceptance speech, the only thing Ball actually promised to do if he becomes premier in 2015 is repeal Bill 29.
Ball has made openness and transparency central to his political brand. And so now that he’s won the leadership, it really was time for him to put up or shut up. Initially, he had promised to release just the dollar figures for his campaign donations, saying that the individual amounts would be sufficiently small that nobody would think Ball was “bought” by anybody. That led a few people — including yours truly — to accuse Ball of taking “secret” donations while running on a platform of openness and transparency.
In the end, Ball opted to release the names and dollar figures of every individual who had given to his campaign. When his campaign actually cashed the cheques, they hadn’t told donors that they were going to do that, so he had to go back to each one of them and get permission. An undisclosed number of people said “no” and clung to their anonymity, so Ball gave them their money back. In total, he refunded $11,000 to donors who wanted to remain anonymous.
Now, writing $11,000 worth of cheques to protect the identities of people who want to stay anonymous isn’t really a huge deal for a guy who already spent $223,000 out of his own pocket on the campaign. But $11,000 is still a pretty decent used car, or a new Harley-Davidson, so let’s not pretend that it’s chump change. Depending on your partisan leaning, you might be inclined to see that as $11,000 spent on the principle of transparency, or $11,000 spent to keep some people’s identities secret. That’s really up to you to decide.
But it’s worth remembering here that initially Ball was only committing to release the dollar figures of each donation, and his donor list shows the reason partial disclosure can be nearly as bad as total secrecy. Paul Antle did the partial disclosure thing. He took in $163,650 from donors, including eight different $10,000 donations from corporations. The public doesn’t know who those companies are. Antle said he started calling up companies and asking if he could publicly disclose that they’d given him money. “I have gone back to some of the corporate donors and asked them, and they said no,” Antle said. “They said there was no requirement for disclosure, there was no tax receipt, and it’s over, so we’d just prefer to remain anonymous.” (It’s worth noting that nearly all of Ball’s donors said yes, and most of Antle’s said no. That should tell you everything you need to know about the value of backing the winner in politics.)
Now, I’ve only had a quick glance through Ball’s campaign expenses, but one thing stuck out right away — the pharmacies. On a cursory examination, 15 different pharmacies donated to Ball’s leadership campaign — mostly in relatively small $500 and $1,000 amounts — together totalling $13,600. (As a side note, the biggest donation from a pharmacy came from the Deer Lake Pharmacy, which Dwight Ball actually owns. I’m not sure what the story behind that donation is, but even if you set that aside, 14 pharmacies from across the province donated $8,600 to Ball.)
Now, I don’t think this is weird. Dwight Ball is a pharmacist. He owns a pharmacy. The Liberal party has been vocal in the House of Assembly in the past on pharmacy issues. Heck, Wayne Morris, a board member of Council of Independent Community Pharmacy Owners (CICPO) ran for the Liberals in Grand Falls-Windsor-Buchans in the 2011 election. (He lost to Health Minister Susan Sullivan.) None of this is even slightly shady. This is how politics works. Interest groups support the political parties and politicians who give their interests a voice. And if Ball is speaking up loudly about pharmacy issues, well, people can judge for themselves.
The point here is that individually independent pharmacies across the province — places like St. Alban’s Drugs, Vila Nova Pharmacy, Windsor Pharmacy, and Main Street PharmaChoice — didn’t give Ball a lot of money. None of the donations would’ve stuck out if you could only see the dollar figures. But collectively, we can see that Ball has the support of a significant number of pharmacies across the province.
It’s up to individual voters to judge what’s an appropriate level of disclosure, and what should be kept confidential. Maybe you think that Ball went over and above what he needed to do. Maybe you think he should have said where the $11,000 that he gave back came from. Maybe you, like Dwight Ball, think that this ad hoc system where politicians make this up as they go along is pretty dodgy, and the Liberal party — or better yet, the government — should come up with some hard and fast rules.
All I’m saying is that, as Ball’s own finances demonstrate, even partial disclosure can potentially hide relevant information from voters.
Anyway, one more time, here’s the complete list of Ball’s donors. Read it all and judge for yourself.