“Undue Influence” – Who Used It, Who Bowed To It?

I listened carefully. Took copious notes as part of my effort to stay awake during the tedious, repetitious, NDP attempts to justify billing already harried taxpayers for their next election campaign expenses. I was comfortably ensconced watching and listening to TV at “home.”

Speaker after NDP speaker emphasized their new government had only goodwill in its heart when it proposed taxpayers pay $30 million plus to listen to a brand new manifesto of yet-to-be-fulfilled election doctrine.

Well-rehearsed, as party discipline dictates, they stolidly repeated the main reason for the decision to ban or severely curb the use of “big money” to fund future election campaigns. The $30 million plus from taxpayers described by Premier John Horgan as “modest in the grand scheme of things,” would end “undue influence” by large donors on future government decisions.

I noted the repeated theme that banning big money donations, especially from large corporations, would “end” undue influence. I waited for names, times, places, proof of wronging doing by the companies so engaged. I waited for the names of government officials – elected or in the public service – on whom “undue influence” had been exerted and in what form. I listened carefully, but without reward.

There were assumptions: A corporation donating heavily to a governing political party before or after winning a multi-million dollar contract must, ergo, be guilty of exerting undue influence; and someone in the former Liberal government must have been equally guilty of being influenced. The assumption is easy to believe, but assumptions – based on what we like to think happened not what actually did happen – are examples of malice at its worst.

So, if the government that sat in opposition for a decade or more insists on peddling its “undue influence” theme to support its planned raid on taxpayer’s savings, could it please provide substantiating facts in “who, what, where, when and why” format. In fairness, it could at the same time provide us with similar answers as to which New Democrats responded to the “unfair influence” of heavy donors to the NDP. Then we’ll know where the weak spots are on both sides of aisle.

For an entertaining read of miscellaneous truths, half-truths and unlimited vanities from the Legislature, do a search of “political scandals in BC.” It’s a fairly long list compared with other provinces but that’s because we have provincial media that loves to hype the inconsequential. There are “conflict of interest” items ranging from heavy duty to, in retrospect, laughably clumsy efforts to make a quick dollar by ignoring rules – and two or three involving bad decisions. Some covered up cost overruns on major projects but only one was a major scandal with proven “undue influence.”

There was the fast ferry fiasco of the 1990s NDP era that saw a fleet of fast ferries built at enormous cost and sold at fire sale prices before they ever went into operation in BC; the Coquihalla Highway Social Credit cover-up of $200 million-plus in cost overruns – making the final cost more than double the original estimates and all racked up in the haste to get the highway opened in time for Expo 86 in Vancouver. Bitter criticism of the project didn’t fade until 2008 when Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government lifted the toll on the highway. It had generated $845 million in revenues.

And the big one, the only one, with a clear exposure of “undue influence,” abuse of privilege, bribes, accusations leading first to judicial inquiry, then a trial and the jailing for five years of W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit Minister of Forests Robert Sommers. He was the first ever cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth to be jailed for accepting a bribe.

It all started in February 1955 when “Bull of the Woods” Liberal MLA Gordon Gibson sent the Legislature into frenzied disarray with his booming accusation that “money talks” in the forest industry. In the chaos, Speaker Thomas Irwin ordered the House adjourned. The following day Gibson was ordered to withdraw his charges. He refused. Mr. Justice Arthur Lord was assigned to investigate and reported he found no basis for Gibson’s charges.

Sommers launched libel suits, but the unwavering Gibson continued his attacks in the House until, in 1956, after 300 days of stonewalling by Attorney General Robert Bonner, Sommers was finally dropped from cabinet. Gibson kept prodding. The RCMP investigated and in November 1957, reported it had discovered “definite indications of wrongdoing.” Sommers was arrested and after an 80-day trial found guilty of accepting bribes. He served 28 months of his five-year sentence, then spent his final years in Qualicum where he died aged 89 in 2000, still claiming he was innocent.

There are lessons here for Premier Horgan. He needs to remember while being premier can feed your vanity it can also starve your self-respect and the respect of others. And it’s the latter that will win the next election not assumptions without factual foundations and taxpayer funding without just cause.

(The “feed your vanity starve your self-respect” thought was originally expressed by Matthew Parris writing about politicians in general in The Times in 1994.)

3 comments

  1. There is a big difference between a bribe and a political donation. Were I to bribe a member of government I would want two results: First, no one but the two of us would ever know about this illegal act. Second, the government member would perform fittingly.

    Political donations are transparent and do not ensure performance. In fact, in an open society a government would be wary of raising a perception of such a nexus.

    Undue influence, as your article points out, is a canard; banning large political donations could very well increase the incidence of bribery.

  2. Thought I would provide a private comment to you “Jimmy”….as Bill Bennett would often call you….

    During my own 14 years working for two of the ‘greats’ I never really saw anything to make me think the sky was falling…. Yes we all looked pretty hard at the ‘Toigo’ influence….but I don’t think that was anything more than familiarity between the top and a particular citizen….

    The influence that “may” (unproven—just a guilty plea) have been attempted around the BC RAIL sale skated pretty close I’d say…but that was after my time really…. I followed it closely though as it sickened me to think staffers could skate so close to abusing their privilege….

    Quite frankly…. I don’t even think the ‘bag full of money late at night’ really had anything to do with wrong doing on Vander Zalm….just stupidity…. cause it did look bad in the end…

    When GRACE was in the back bench we had three major fund-raisers and I never saw one of the donors try to use that influence to gain access. I know a lobbyist once tried to use his time in the legislative precinct to impress his client and get the client in Grace’s front door…. I was told by her to put him at bottom of list and actually see it never happened….the access….it didn’t.

    I’m glad you’re still writing….just like I’d normally reply to RAFE’s columns…privately ….but the insight and the ability to say “when I was there and living it” always adds a certain value.

    Just to be clear…I’m for leaving the ability for politicians to raise money from private sector should remain basically unchanged. Christy Clark’s team raised buckets as you know….but it didn’t help at the final count in the House…. I always figured that a number of people with money (whether their own or someone else’s) didn’t get in that position by being stupid. They often were major players in making the overall economy work… and if they wanted to back Candidate X ….then that’s all part of democracy.

    Oh…and on the government-financed political party system….Although I am often happy to hear Elizabeth May’s voice in Ottawa… I think the Stephen Harper formula awarded her a million dollars to run her one seat party with only 3% of popular vote…..and it drove me nuts….

    Jim Bennett 558 Seaward Way Qualicum Beach, BC V9K 1T8 250-594-2893 jim.bennett@shaw.ca

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