By Dermod Travis
Who would ever have thought that a single political donor could have disclosed so much about the sorry state of affairs surrounding money and politics in B.C.?
In what it now calls a “learning experience”, TRIUMF—Canada's nuclear physics laboratory located at the University of British Columbia—finally acknowledged last week that it wasn't the most prudent of moves to make $3,370 in political donations to the B.C. Liberal party over the past three years.
It also contravened the B.C. Election Act for the Liberal party to accept these donations, since TRIUMF is a registered charity. And because of that, this past week, Elections B.C. advised the Liberals that these donations “must be returned” to TRIUMF.
But what makes this tale even more remarkable is what TRIUMF said publicly to justify its donations in the first place.
In an attempt to explain away the indefensible, it admitted that its sole reason in making these donations was to gain face time with B.C.'s political elite.
As TRIUMF's director Nigel Lockyer put it to UBC's student newspaper, the Ubyssey: “It’s a cost-effective, time-effective way to interact with the people in the government. That’s the way the system works.”
The system Lockyer was presumably referring to is what others might more crassly and discreetly term “pay to play".
Because according to Lockyer, the donations were made so that he could speak to B.C. Liberal MLAs Moira Stillwell and Richard Lee, as well as to Premier Christy Clark at B.C. Liberal party fundraising receptions.
Driving his point home to the Ubyssey, Lockyer added: “This is really how the world works...I really don’t think this is something that we want to stop doing.”
They do now.
It's unlikely that a CEO of a major corporation such as Teck would try to explain away its $138,200 donation to the Liberals in 2011 by saying he just wanted some face time with the premier, which is what makes TRIUMF's honesty all the more refreshing.
The B.C. Liberals haven't even bothered trying to deny Lockyer's claim. It's perhaps not a surprising position given their own predilection for using special access as a key selling feature to their fundraising receptions.
Just this February, the B.C. Liberals held what they called a “power lunch” for Surrey businesspeople who wanted to bring their “issues forward for discussion and response before the next election” with Minister of Open Government Margaret MacDiarmid.
Notwithstanding the oxymoronic nature of a political party using a minister of open government to be the star attraction at a “power lunch", the event came only months after another B.C. Liberal party power event at the Calgary Petroleum Club.
And that's Calgary, as in Alberta, where Premier Christy Clark headlined a $500-a-plate reception at the exclusive club, raising a tidy sum from Calgary's elite.
That event was organized by her now chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool.
Those who munched on canapés and sipped spritzers with the premier in Calgary likely can't even vote in a B.C. election, although they clearly felt they had a stake in the outcome.
Maybe donors to B.C. political parties have concluded all on their own that this is the “way the world works”, as Lockyer put it, or they've grown accustomed over time through their various political interactions that this is indeed how it seems to work in B.C.
But promoting exclusive access to the premier, government ministers, or even backbench MLAs at party fundraising events isn't how the world is supposed to work. And it also smacks of the very worst kind of politics.
As NDP MLA Shane Simpson said to the Ubyssey, some of the onus should be on the Liberals themselves. “It would be better if they (TRIUMF) just felt confident they could get to the government without having to pull out their chequebook to do it.”
Adding insult to injury over that $1,950 TRIUMF donated to the B.C. Liberals last year was that one of those receptions allowed a chance to speak with Burnaby-North MLA Richard Lee. That would be the same Richard Lee who worked at TRIUMF for 22 years before his election in 2001.
Dermod Travis is executive director of Integrity B.C.