Pity Stephen McNeil. The NDP wants to stop his Liberals from continuing to tap a tainted $2.37-million party trust fund to pay its bills.
“The motive… is political,” McNeil complained to reporters after the government introduced the bill this week, adding plaintively: “You’d have to ask them why they would specifically go after us.”
Uh… No, I don’t have to ask the government, Mr. McNeil.
I know why.
So do you.
And all I can say is, it’s about time.
For decades, Liberal and Tory governments would fatten their party coffers with money raised by a practice known as "tollgating." If you were a business and wanted to sell to the province, you had to fork over a kickback to the party-in-power’s bagman for the privilege. You paid so much for every case of booze sold to the liquor commission, every side of beef delivered to the regional hospital cafeteria, every pencil peddled to the local school board.
The parties raked in millions as a result. In the 1980s when the Mounties investigated the fundraising practices of Gerald Regan’s Liberal government, they discovered it had raised more than $4 million illegally during its eight years in office.
The Mounties filed influence-peddling charges against three senior Liberal bagmen, including one known as “Suitcase” Simpson for his suitcases of cash. One pleaded guilty. Two others were convicted at trial, though one appealed and his conviction was overturned on a technicality. He was later acquitted at a re-trial.
The Mounties tried to investigate the fundraising practices of provincial Tory governments too, but—as an investigator testified during the Liberals’ trial—Tory fundraisers had burned their records before the police could seize them. The Mounties found only one intact file, which indicated the same kickback pattern the Liberals had employed.
Despite the odour, the Liberals continued to use this dirty money, including to underwrite a secret salary for their leader. Eventually, when the stench got too bad, the party reluctantly agreed to audit the controversial funds and turn over any tainted money to the province.
But, thanks to the usual political jiggery-pokery, the audit wasn’t an audit. The party claimed only $1.3 million worth of the money was “proven or alleged to have been obtained” through kickbacks. They kept the rest. And still use it to give the party an unfair advantage over its rivals.
In opposition,the NDP filibustered a 2006 Tory-Liberal campaign finance reform bill because it failed to deal with this trust funds issue. So it’s no surprise the NDP is now using its majority to finally flush the system of these proceeds of crime.
The only surprise is that Stephen McNeil isn’t smart enough to simply say thank you and get on with rebuilding his party. Pity.
Online postscript: In the occasional way of the print-on-paper world, events overtook this column between the time it was written and published in Metro. On Thursday, October 22, the NDP’s new legislation unexpectedly and quickly passed through all its legislative hurdles without opposition or even discussion.
McNeil’s Liberals did not oppose it. "It was my direction and I take full responsibility that this issue needs to be behind us," McNeil explained to reporters after the vote. "It needs to be behind the party, and (let’s) get on with doing the business of bringing our Liberal values, Liberal views and engaging Nova Scotians about, not only how we hold the government accountable, but the things that matter to them and how we put together public policy."
So… while I can’t claim ex-post-facto credit for the fact McNeil so quickly saw the light on this issue, I can congratulate him for his wise decision. Time to move forward.