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BC NDP Sidles Up to Business

Party's corporate donations spike, but still pale compared to Libs. What's the effect?

By Andrew MacLeod 3 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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NDP Leader Adrian Dix: 'What business doesn't want is uncertainty.'

When a recent story in The Tyee mentioned in passing that the logging company Canfor Corporation had given more than $56,000 to British Columbia's New Democratic Party in 2011, a helpful reader wrote to say we appeared to have made a typo.

"Something seems amiss as I don't imagine Canfor donating big to the NDP," he said.

Unimaginable as it might seem, the figure is correct. It also indicates a shift that's starting as corporate leaders accept the polls may be right and anticipate a change in government in the province after the May 14, 2013 election.

According to records filed with Elections BC, Canfor gave $56,245 to the BC NDP in the year, the bulk of it in a single $50,000 donation on April 20.

The amount was slightly less than Canfor gave the BC Liberals in 2011 and around one-tenth of what the company has given the ruling party since 2005. But it was also significantly more than the $2,500 Canfor gave the NDP in 2010, which itself was the first donation the company had made to the party in years.

A Canfor media contact failed to return The Tyee's call by publication time.

Donations briefly noted

"It's clearly a good contribution," said NDP Leader Adrian Dix.

Dix acknowledged his friend Glen Clark, the former NDP premier who now works for major Canfor stockholder Jimmy Pattison and who made a personal donation to Dix's leadership campaign, is on the company's board.

Clark is one vote on Canfor's board, however, and unlikely to have been able to deliver the donation on his own, Dix said. "They made the contribution and there it is."

When the parties released their annual financial reports in April, the donations from Canfor and other corporations to the NDP were briefly noted in provincial media, including in a well detailed Business in Vancouver article by Bob Mackin.

Aside from Canfor, donors to the NDP included the BC Real Estate Association ($10,900), Yellow Cab Company ($5,580), Great Canadian Gaming Corp. ($5,500), Concord Pacific Group Inc. ($5,000), Pennwest Exploration ($5,000), Earnscliffe Strategy ($4,250), Westbank Projects Corp. ($3,025), London Drugs Ltd. ($3,000), Shoppers Drug Mart ($3,000), Hillsborough Resources ($3,000), Sespan ($3,000) and Enbridge ($3,000).

Smaller amounts, some of them targeted to candidates in last year's leadership race, came from MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, the Cement Association of Canada, CN Rail, Fortis, Fasken Martineau Dumolin LLP, Hastings Entertainment Ltd. and Imperial Metals Corp.

Altogether corporations gave the BC NDP some $230,028 in 2011. The amount all but disappears next to the $4.95 million that corporations, including many of the same ones, gave to the BC Liberals. But it also represents a 35 per cent jump from the $170,261 they gave the party in 2010.

The NDP, by the way, holds that corporate and union donations should be banned from provincial politics, though one party official said it's not going to put itself at a disadvantage by refusing them.

Corporation 'happy to assist'

With growing corporate fundraising success comes questions about how donations might change the party, or what the donors might expect in return. One source suggested it would be good for the party to broaden its donor base to balance the influence of longtime big funders such as the United Steelworkers or the B.C. Federation of Labour.

There's also a potential downside. For example, after The Tyee ran a story quoting forestry critic Norm MacDonald expressing concerns about the situation facing a Canfor competitor in the Columbia Valley, three sources said company officials called Dix's office to complain.

One speculated MacDonald might even lose his critic portfolio over the kerfuffle. As of this writing that hasn't happened.

And despite receiving a donation from pipeline company Enbridge, the NDP has been vocally opposed to the company's proposal to build twin pipelines across northern B.C. between Alberta's oil sands and Kitimat on the coast. The party submitted an 11-page letter to the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel criticizing the project, even as Premier Christy Clark's government has failed to take an official position for or against it.

Calls to Enbridge's media contact went unreturned.

A spokesperson for Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which depends on government licenses and regulations to operate, offered his perspective on political donations.

"We give donations to any parties, civic, provincial, etc. that request donations," said Howard Blank, vice president for media, entertainment and responsible gaming. "We've always believed in the civic and political process and that's something we do with any party regardless of their affiliation, whether it be NDP, Liberal, Conservative etc."

The company's given to the NDP before, he said. "There's nothing special with this donation out of the ordinary other than they requested and we were happy to assist."

Purchases depend on government policy

Life Sciences BC, an industry group mainly composed of drug and other health companies, has given small amounts to both major parties. On June 27 it had NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston as a keynote speaker at a breakfast at Vancouver's Terminal City Club.

"We've typically presented both sides of the house, so to speak," said Don Enns, the group's president. Ralston has been "a very strong supporter" of the life sciences technology sector, but "it's a pattern that's been in place for sometime," he said.

Less than two years ago Life Sciences had Carole James as a speaker while she was still leading the NDP, he said. And a few weeks ago it had Health Minister Michael de Jong, a BC Liberal, at an event in Boston. The organization is trying to line up a Liberal for a fall talk, he said.

It's important for people in the industry to have good relationships with all of the parties, especially with a public health care system where the government is the main buyer of the products the group members make, said Enns.

"It's government, and particularly government policy, that's going to drive the procurement of a device or drug," he said. "They decide who and what gets paid for."

It has, however, been "very evident" that the NDP has recently been reaching out to business and trying to develop a better understanding, he said. The nearness of the election makes a difference too, he added. "There's clearly a heightened sense, and not only with the NDP but within the Liberal camp also."

Too much unnecessary disagreement: Dix

No question many NDP MLAs are happy to be seen talking with business.

"My dance card's full," house leader and energy critic John Horgan recently told The Tyee. "I've been tagged by 90 lobbyists," he said, referring to the registry of which lobbyists are talking to which MLAs.

The day we spoke he'd been to lunch with a group representing major industrial power users, he said. "They're not giving me cheques," he said. "They're just kicking the tires to see if we're crazy."

He hastened to add that despite what the NDP's opponents say about them, the party's not "crazy" and is just as committed to a free market economy as any of the other parties in the provinces.

Dix said he's been making a strong effort for over a year now to meet with people, including representatives from businesses and industry groups.

"There's too much unnecessary disagreement in B.C. politics," he said, adding that often it is based on misunderstandings of what people believe or represent. "I meet with business people most every day to address some of their questions," he said.

Sectors like forestry and logging require different interest groups, including the government and the industry, to work together, he said. "It's very important to develop these relationships," he said. "The relationship is to me one we want, which is a professional one. I think they call it 'business like.'"

Partly that means telling people what you're going to do before you do it, he said. "My whole belief in politics is you have to be clear and say what you're going to do," said Dix, giving the example that he's said an NDP government would raise the corporate tax rate back to where it was in 2008, and he intends to follow through.

"I think what business doesn't want is uncertainty," he said. "I think everybody wants us to work with business in a productive way. I think most people understand we want to do that."  [Tyee]

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