I was surprised to learn this week that there are no controls on spending in the Liberal leadership campaign. Donations can come from anyone and spending is limited only by the candidates’ ability to raise funds and the state of their own finances.
Given voters’ distaste for the influence money can have in politics, you would think the party would have put some rules in place to secure voter confidence. It should have been discussed when they set the amount required to qualify for entry into the leadership race. Unfortunately, there are no rules, so anything goes.
The province’s elections act doesn’t really deal with internal party stuff either.
While the limits on spending and the conditions attached to donations are clear in the act, the act is specific to partisan elections at the provincial level and addresses the legal requirements of nominated candidates and the political parties they represent. Section 270 of the act indicates that none of this applies to leadership races within a political party. In other words, it falls to the party to make its own rules.
In the absence of that happening, and to their credit, the candidates in this particular race have decided to do it themselves. All five have declared that when the race is over they will release how much they spent. Most of us would like to see the numbers, but knowing who spent what is of no real value other than to satisfy our curiosity.
If Dwight Ball spends $160,000 on his campaign, for example, and Cathy Bennett or one of the others spends even more, we might all be intrigued and subject that big spender to some unfair criticism, but it won’t really mean a lot. One thing you can count on — if the person who spends the most money ends up winning the race, then tongues will wag.
All five candidates for the Liberals’ top job have agreed there should have been rules covering spending and donations.
Limiting spending is one thing, but revealing the sources of your funding is quite another. Who donates and how much they give is a much more interesting question for voters than who spent what. Voters equate big donations from any source as an effort at buying influence and not as any kind of real support for the person or the party.
Paul Antle says if he gets to be premier he wants to see leadership contests fall under the rules of the province’s Elections Act.
“We should have some guidelines that are legislated,” he says, “and not just at the whim of the political party.”
Danny Dumaresque is thinking along the same lines, but he seems to want to keep it inside the party.
“I do believe there is an appropriate measure of spending that should take place in all election contests, similar to what we have decided to do in provincial politics,” he said, adding the party should examine the issue.
He also wants leadership races governed by provincial law.
Their comments are controversial.
I’m not sure how happy provincial political parties would be about having their internal business regulated by the province. You could argue that the leadership of the Liberal party is a “family affair,” and anything they do outside of breaking the law should be of no concern to anyone else.
That’s how it works right now so I was surprised to learn that the rules covering donations and expenditures for the leadership were not put in place before the contest started.
Those rules weren’t required to control candidates or ensure a level playing field, but rather to show that the party is accountable and transparent.
Call it a political opportunity lost.
Should leaderships be controlled by the elections act? No, they should be controlled by the party.
Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at email@example.com Twitter: @RandyRsimms