Cha-ching!: Almost $800,000 donated to political parties in 2010

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on December 17, 2011
Confederation Building - Telegram File Photo

Timing made Bell Aliant this province's top political contributor in 2010.

The communications giant donated a total of $21,450 to parties in Newfoundland and Labrador last year - $16,000 to the PCs and $5,450 to the Liberals.

But that amount was elevated by where fundraising events fell on the calendar and when bills were paid, explained Mark Duggan, Bell Aliant's corporate affairs manager.

"We actually paid a 2009 invoice in 2010," he said.

Bell Aliant's contributions were among the $779,968 donated to provincial political parties last year, according to a list released this fall by Elections Newfoundland and Labrador.

(TO SEE A PDF OF ALL POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS CLICK HERE)

The governing Tories received far more than the Liberals and New Democrats.

PC contributions were $690,165, compared to $59,123 for the NDP and nearly $30,680 for the Liberals.

PC party president John Babb was expectedly partisan when commenting on the Tory lion's share.

The backing, he said, indicates approval of the party's successive premiers, cabinet and caucus, and is the result of hard work by volunteers and staff.

"The healthy support we have nurtured and maintained is a very strong indication that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador believe in what we stand for and what we are doing as a party and government," Babb wrote in an email.

Donations from big businesses like Bell Aliant were common among the contributions, but donations from architects, banks, consultants, contractors and fish processors were significant, too.

For the most part, there were few surprises among the business donations because the firms were based in the province or have a considerable presence here.

However, there were a few head-scratchers, like three contributions to the Tories totalling $8,500 from Shoppers Drug Mart of North York, Ont.

That seemed like a lot of Optimum card points, prompting The Telegram to ask the national company about its donation.

"Shoppers Drug Mart, from time to time, provides support to political parties of all types across the country as an active participant in the political and public policy environment in Canada," Tammy Smitham, director of communications and corporate affairs, stated in an email.

"This support is primarily focused towards special event participation, including political fund-raising dinners and golf tournaments in jurisdictions across the country."

Aiding the political process was a familiar refrain among donors questioned, including some of the other contributors that piqued our attention, like the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Association. It gave $2,000 to the PCs.

"The RNC Association supports the political process," president Tim Buckle said.

"Fundraising by political parties is an aspect of politics, and we have supported both (the Tories and the Liberals)."

Buckle explained the association's most common type of donation is sponsoring a team in a party's golf tournament, but he noted the organization also backs the campaigns of current or former RNC officers, like Topsail MHA Paul Davis.

Alex Marland, an assistant professor of political science at Memorial University, said there are always worries about the role of donations in politics, because people generally don't give money without a reason.

He said the contributions are vital, since political campaigns can't operate without cash.

"So the money has to come from somewhere and it's either going to come from businesses and private donors and unions, or it's going to come from the public purse," he said.

Marland said he wonders if the province's legislation on political donations will "catch up to what's happening at the federal level."

National parties, he explained, can no longer accept money from businesses and unions, and significant restrictions have been placed on individual gifts.

He thinks the federal legislation is working well, but notes the rules are causing problems for opposition parties. The governing Conservatives, he continued, are doing well because of a large database of grassroot supporters dating back to their Reform party roots.

Marland expects parties in this province would be in a lot of trouble if Ottawa's rules were adopted here. He figures they'd need time to develop a database of donors.

Still, he suggests the federal rules are worth a look.

"A lot of legislation in a smaller provinces like Newfoundland often needs to look to federal legislation for ideas," Marland said.

"They have two chambers, we have one. A lot of scrutiny happens, a lot of ideas, a lot more resources ... For smaller places, sometimes good ideas can come out of Ottawa."

The Telegram spoke to a number of people involved in elections legislation in the province, and it appears the federal rules governing political contributions haven't been considered and no change is in sight.

This year's political contributions will likely be higher than 2010's because of the provincial election. The final tally won't be released until late summer or early fall, after parties submit their donors and the numbers are scrutinized by Elections Newfoundland and Labrador.

Meanwhile, a word of caution for those who go online and browse the list of 2010 contributors: the names listed aren't always who they seem to be.

A $400 donation to the Tories from Ed Ring had The Telegram momentarily wondering if the province's information and privacy commissioner had breached his non-partisan office.

That wasn't the case.

"My son, his name is Edward Ring as well," the commissioner said.

"He's a Crown attorney now, but he was practising law with a private firm and attended the golf (tournament) with three or four of his friends.

"I do understand the reason for your call and it would have been a significant contravention of my neutrality if, in fact, I would ever do that."

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: @bartlett_steve