OTTAWA — Generous New Democrats have been giving the NDP a lot of money in their wills, but that practice is about to come to an end with the Conservatives’ Fair Elections Act.
A review of Elections Canada’s records of contributions to political parties shows posthumous donations count for the largest gifts political parties receive – a total of $867,864.75 from the estates of 30 people between 2007 and 2012. But the gifts are not evenly distributed.
Records show the NDP received the vast majority of all posthumous donations, with 17 estates donating $814,814.75 over that period. The estate of a B.C. union activist and NDP supporter, William Giesbrecht, donated more than $296,000 after he died in 2011. The estate of NDP supporter Ruth Millicent Hass gave more than $210,000 to the party.
Liberals and Conservatives have received far less. The Grits received $34,500 from five donors. The Tories received $32,500 from five donors. The Communist Party of Canada received $22,848 from one donor.
After former leader Jack Layton died in 2011, NDP spokesman George Soule said, the party launched a legacy project to encourage donors to leave money in their wills. Layton left $50,000 to the party when he died.
“It has been successful for us. These are people who want to do good work and may not have the family to give to. It is something that has worked well for us, and we appreciate that generosity,” Soule said.
The Conservative government calls posthumous donations a contribution loophole that the Fair Elections Act will eliminate.
Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre told a business audience last week that people should not be allowed to skirt individual contribution limits by leaving a party money in their will.
“One deceased donor left the NDP $210,000. That is 200 times over the donation limit – and it is perfectly legal,” he told the crowd.
“So while dead people cannot vote, they can make larger donations than the living are allowed to make. By imposing the donation limit on wills and testaments, the Fair Elections Act puts the nail in that coffin.”
Currently, the law exempts bequests to political entities from the contribution limits. The government plans to cap the amount that can be left in a testament to a political party at $1,500 a year whether they are alive or dead.
Alberta Conservative MP James Rajotte told HuffPost he does not understand why dead people should be allowed to give more than Canadians who are living.
“My gut feeling is that I think political parties should be supported financially by people who are living,” he said, with a smile. “I think it’s entirely reasonable to say that people who are living are the ones who are donating.”
Ontario Conservative MP Gord Brown said he also thinks dead people should not be allowed to give more than those who are alive.
“The spirit is that nobody should have undue influence, but why should an estate or the family of an estate have the ability to exceed the limit? I don’t think they should,” he said.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that he agrees with the government’s intentions on legacy gifts.
“I think we really have to be very, very careful that there aren’t loopholes that can be exploited that allow certain people or families to have an undue influence on political parties, because that’s not the intent of electoral reform, which is supposed to be pushing towards a fair and more democratic system,” he said.
A larger number of Canadians should be allowed to participate and influence political outcomes rather than privileging a small few, he said.
The NDP disagrees.
“One of the reasons that you want to have severe limits on donations is to make sure that people aren’t purchasing a favour in return,” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said after his caucus met on Wednesday.
“In the case of posthumous donations, I think it’s fairly clear that people are not expecting anything in return.”
One NDP source said it is clear that the Conservatives are once again trying to use the Fair Elections Act to help themselves, while stopping any measure that helps their political opponents.
NDP MP Matthew Dubé told HuffPost that, “like a lot of things in the bill, there is definitely some political motivation.”
“When you talk about money in politics, I think if you want to better structure the rules around that, that’s fine. But I don’t think it’s fair to limit what people can give after they’ve passed on, if that’s what they want to do,” he said.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Don Boudria, who shepherded the last rounds of election reforms, told HuffPost he does not think there is anything wrong with large posthumous donations.
“It’s quite difficult to imagine that someone who is dead will influence the result of the following election — unless, of course, they resuscitate promptly to phone the prime minister, which most of us probably won’t,” he said.
Soule, the NDP spokesman, said the NDP’s legacy project has been on hold since the Fair Elections Act was introduced.
“Given the sensitivity and the type of donations, we didn’t really think it was appropriate to advertise a campaign of this nature that might not be valid, basically any minute now.”
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