Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What Is Wall Doing?

Source: CBC News: Brad Wall Defends Pay from Saskatchewan Party
Source: CBC News: Party for Government Politicians Raises Concerns
Source: Leader Post: Sask. Party Provides Pay Top-Up to Premier
Source: Leader Post: Wine and Cheese Receptions Not an Avenue for Lobbying, Premier Says

So, let's all take a deep breath and get used to issue responding posts before moving on.

There, now that we're all acclimated to the old format we can begin. Scanning the headlines today, these were the two most significant news topics I could see today (in regards to Saskatchewan politics, at least.) Let's start first with Wall's salary top up and then talk a bit about whether or not a wine and cheese party is a place where lobbying can occur.

News came out today that Brad Wall, who in a recent request for information didn't release his salary, that the Premier was receiving not only his public paycheque but a top up from the Saskatchewan Party itself. Wall, whose salary is $154,247 a year, is receiving an extra $37,000 from the party that he represents. Wall is defending the payment by saying that its an extra bit that acknowledges the extra duties that the party leader has and reflects this.

So, let's examine that for a moment.

Wall is suggesting that he needs an extra $37,000 to perform his duties as Leader of the Saskatchewan Party. Do you know what is wrong with that sentence? The problem rests in the idea that despite being Premier, Wall is still restricting his view to being Leader of the Saskatchewan Party.

I get the sense some of you might not see why this alone is a problem, allow me to try and explain. By suggesting that there are duties as Leader of a Party that fall outside his current pay scheme; Wall is essentially saying that there are times when he CEASES to be Premier of Saskatchewan and is simply the Leader of the Saskatchewan Party.

Or to break that down into simpler terms: There are times when Wall is only acting as Leader of his PARTY, not Leader of the PROVINCE.

Now, I'm struggling to find out where such an occurrence would exist. If he's talking to the business community, is he acting as Premier or as Party Leader? If he's talking to Federal Counterparts, is it as Premier or Party Leader? If he's outside of Saskatchewan for a conference, is it as Premier or Party Leader?

The only thing I could think of would perhaps be internal party work, such as attending Sask Party conventions...But, a convention is hardly something that a person should be paid for. I mean, we don't pay the general people who have taken time off their schedule to attend; why would we pay the current leader of the party to attend?

If anyone can clearly think of a legitimate reason, please pass it along as I'd be happy to know what it is.

That brings me back to where we were. This top-up payment seems to be a problem in two ways: Firstly, as mentioned, the payment suggests that there are times when Wall ceases to be Premier and acts only as a representative of the Saskatchewan Party.

The second problem comes from the money itself. Wall has been quick to point out that the payment is not from taxpayers, but comes from the party itself. The problem with this is that money is likely coming from donations made to the party. And these donations can, and in most cases do, create a tax return for the person making the donation.

If I can remember my tax scheme correctly, a $100 donation equals a $75 tax return to the person making the donation. That means a person making a $100 donation to the Sask Party receives $75 back, while there $100 could be put towards Wall's $37,000 top-up.

So, while taxpayers are not directly paying for this top-up, we are indirectly paying for it due to the nature of tax returns on political donations.

Furthermore, this raises a problem in terms of conflict of interest. In a system where the Premier is receiving a top-up from his party, that opens the door for impropriety. Allow me to explain.

Saskatchewan legislation, according to Elections Saskatchewan, has no limit on how much a person can donate to a political party. (Source) Furthermore, companies can contribute freely to the political party.

So, let's say Company A makes a $2,500 donation to the Saskatchewan Party. Now, that donation is money that the Sask Party can do anything with. They could print flyers, they could run advertisements...Or, they could use a percentage (or all of it) to put towards the pay top-up.

Indirectly, that Company is now responsible for part of the $37,000 that Wall receives from the party. You can see how this is a touchy subject. If you don't, allow me to try and explain a bit better.

Wall is essentially receiving money from those donating to his party. So, if Company A donates money to the party, there's a chance part of their donation goes towards Wall's top-up payment. Now, the problem with this lies in the fact that a Company A could be 'inclined' to provide more to the party, knowing that their donation will go towards paying the Leader.

So, should a bill come up where the Company would benefit (or even perhaps a public tender), the leader of the party might remember the Company who helped provide an extra $37,000 to their pocket. Now, you should see the problem.

To clarify, I'm not saying that Wall is currently taking direct payments from corporate or private donators in exchange for political favours. There's no proof of that. However, this kind of top-up opens the door for such financial influence to exist.

What else is telling is Wall's language regarding the pay. He said that he received these payments during his time in opposition, and that former Sask Party Leader Elwin Hermanson also received these payments. What's telling is that Wall has admitted that it was $37,000 for the last two years. He only vaguely mentioned that the amount, while in opposition, was 'similar' to what he is being paid now.

As such, Wall needs to actually release the figures of what the party was topping his pay with since he took over the helm of the party. If he was paid more, or less, is a valid question we should be asking. If the pay has substantially increased since he became Premier, it would seem to argue that the top-up may indeed be tied to some donations being made to sway the Premier.

If the payment has decreased, or stayed the same, then at least no one can claim that Wall is indeed being privately courted by donations to his party...But we can all agree that the process needs to stop because it is opening the door that would allow that situation to exist.

Public officials are paid from the public purse for a number of reasons. The main reason being that it keeps those in power beholden to the public, and reminds them that they make a living off of serving the community at large. When a private group contributes, or controls, the pay of a public official then it changes who that official is beholden to.

If Wall wants to show leadership, for a change, he can stand up and stop this practice in his own party.

And that brings us to lobbying, though we have touched on the subject with Wall's top-up payments. After the Legislature opened, a party was thrown in a Regina establishment by four different companies (a law firm, an oil company, an office supplies business, and an accounting firm) for members of the government caucus.

Now, obviously, this party has raised the ire of a lot of people and put Wall on the defensive. Wall is saying that this type of get together is not a place where lobbying of government officials occur, and that it is just a simple get together.

But, let's look at the problems with that statement.

Both articles allude to the event being invitational. The CBC article talks of how the event was for government MLAs and their staff; as does the Leader Post. Yet, they both fail to mention for who the invitations were sent out.

The invitations promised food, drink and great conversation...Yet, they don't mention who these invitations were sent out to. Were they sent to the Sask Party MLAs and staffers? Were they sent to local business owners? Were they sent to local citizens? Were they sent to Sask Party donors? Or all of the above?

I can't say, simply because I do not know. Though, the invitations existence would seem to suggest that the event was for people outside of the caucus and staff. The wording, especially the part about great conversation, would seem to suggest that the four businesses throwing the event were focusing on the caucus and staffers as 'guests of honour' rather than just the targeted guests.

As such, it would seem that this event was thrown to get the right people into the room with Sask Party caucus members and key staffers. That's just speculation on my part, but it's certainly how it reads to me.

Now, Wall says that these types of events are not the venue for lobbying...But these are the exact kind of events his party used to throw for members of the Enterprise Club; food, drink, and good conversation with Ministers and the Premier himself. The Sask Party abandoned the practice when it became public knowledge, but now they seem to have outsourced the event to the private sector. (Is there anything they're not trying to privatize?)

Wall deflected by saying that events that promote lobbying are usually thrown by associations and groups who are actively seeing the influence policy, and that events like that are attended by MLAs from both parties...

But what Wall is neglecting is the simplest fact of politics: ANY event is an event where lobbying will occur.

It doesn't matter who is throwing the event, or the reason why, but any sitting member of government or opposition will be approached with issues. Those issues range from personal initiatives to policy ideas, but politicians are always going to be approached by the public at ANY EVENT and asked their opinion on an issue and be told by those gathered the best way to deal with the issue.

As such, a wine-and-cheese party is a place where lobbying would occur. The nature and the complexity of the lobbying may be different, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen.

And if there was no lobbying occurring and it was just another 'new legislative session, boo-yah!' party; then surely staffers and MLAs from the other side of the house would have been invited to par take as well. As far as I know, none were.

So, here we seem to have a PARTY LEADER who is confused about what lobbying is and just who exactly he works for...It's going to be a long four years.

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