Thursday, November 09, 2006

Telecoms, government and money - Welcome to the party!

CBC radio today broke the story that information filed by the provincial Chief Electoral Officer show that Persona donated $9,500 to the PCs in 2005 alone, while Rogers donated almost $12,000.

You can poke around here, if you'd like, and check how much people have given each party but I've already taken the time to summarize the information for you, my gentle reader.

The table shows the money given to the PC party or candidates by the telecom companies involved in the fibre optic network that has attracted $15 million from the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

It turns out that the relationship actually goes back further and totals a little more than the CBC story says. In fact since the year 2001 up to 2005, Rogers has donated $15,600 while Persona donated $10,700.

All these money values are donations to the PC party, the PC election campaigns or to individual PC candidates only.

Donations by both companies to the Liberal or NDP parties were $0 over the same period.

So what does this all mean in the context of the news of the last few days?

To start, let's be explicit about one thing - notwithstanding a clear flow of campaign funds from these two telecoms to the governing party, there is no evidence that this government, or any member of government, has done anything corrupt or illegal. That might seem counter-intuitive but it's literally true.

First, all the monies were correctly donated and reported. Unless someone comes up with evidence of under the table political financing, there is nothing improper or illegal in giving money to a political party, campaign or candidate.

Second, there is no evidence of any kind of quid pro quo. Unless someone is willing to swear that the monies were provided with the understanding that material favours would be provided by government in return, there is no corruption involved.

Third, unless and until it can be shown that Premier Williams or any member of his government or their families will materially benefit in a personal way from this deal, then there is no conflict of interest.

So, since there is no evidence of corruption, no evidence of conflict of interest and all funds were provided legally and above board, what's the problem?

The fundamental problem is this: government needs to be responsible in all decisions regarding expenditures of funds. When that money is being spent to support a private sector enterprise, the standards for scrutiny must go up and government must take extra measures to ensure that the decision is sound.

And when the money is going to support a private sector enterprise that is so close to prominent members of government, the case for the expenditure must be iron-clad, extra open and transparent and in every way beyond reproach.

Government should not be surprised that they are being reproached for this decision.

Not too long ago I covered this issue in a post called Ethics, Law and Government and my point then was that:
No set of laws or codes will ever eradicate ethical transgressions on the part of elected officials. We can only try to elect persons who have that internal compass that tells them what is appropriate and what is not. We can only hope for leadership from the top that guides all members of government to closely examine if their actions are correct or not.

But when the top dogs define what is appropriate purely in terms of what is legal then that is the recipe for future problems. When a government can't tell what is ethically appropriate from what is merely legal, then you have a government that you have to watch twice as hard.
That point still stands.

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