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Editorial: Pay to play


Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time. At least, it seemed like a good fundraising idea for the St. John’s Board of Trade. The board would invite Premier Dwight Ball, all of the provincial cabinet ministers and all seven of the province’s federal Liberal members of Parliament to a dinner — and then sell $500-a-plate tickets to the event to local businesspeople.

The board told potential buyers that it would be “a unique, one-of-a-kind opportunity to network with some of the most influential people in Newfoundland and Labrador in government and the private sector.”

The Board of Trade email to potential customers went on: “this is an intimate event with 5-6 people per table allowing you maximum opportunity to network.”

Opponents say the dinner is a blatant case of pay-for-access politics, even though the money being raised isn’t going to the Liberal party — their point is that people are paying handsomely for privileged access to government officials.

You could debate whether this is actually government ministers trading access for cash, but what you can’t debate is that this is exactly why this province’s political financing and ethics legislation needs a tune-up to bring in somewhere close to the modern era.

In recent weeks, pretty much everyone except the Liberals have argued that it’s time for provincial elections legislation to stop donations from companies and unions to finance political parties. What’s clear from the often-delayed release of party financial information in this province is that whoever is in government suddenly receives far more financial support from the corporate sector than they did as an opposition.

The clear suggestion? That either companies believe that paying into the political coffers of a governing party is good investment, or that bagmen from those parties can make a persuasive argument for why a big donation is a sensible business decision.

What’s striking is how often sizable donations match up with business that are either doing significant business with governments, or are seeking particular concessions.

In years’ past, some businesses have told The Telegram that party representatives have actually contacted businesses that landed government work and advised those businesses how many tickets for fundraising dinners they were expected to buy.

Whether it’s tithing or paying for access, it’s about time the process was brought to an end. Politicians are elected to serve the public, not for their parties to serve themselves.

Even though reformed election financing was a Liberal promise, the promise had, until this week, been shunted off into we’ve-got-more-important-things-to-do land of 2018 or so. This week, Government House Leader Andrew Parsons suggested he might be able to find legislative time to deal with the issue this fall. Good — it’s long overdue.

Meanwhile, as it has for years, money will continue to talk.

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