Stephen Harper suggests that trust is the most important political issue facing Canadians. If so, Canadians should be very wary of the promises the Conservative Leader is making about introducing tougher election spending limits if he becomes prime minister.

Harper has spent much of his political life fighting the very idea of putting limits on corporate spending in elections, strongly opposing efforts to ban corporate donations to political parties. For him, now, to champion such legislation stretches his credibility and our trust to the breaking point.

The irony in this flip-flop is hard to match. If legislation banning corporate money from the political process had been in place since 1984, when it was first attempted, the sponsorship scandal might never have happened. Yet, ever since entering politics, Harper has done everything he could to ensure that corporate largesse would continue to play a distorting role in Canadian democracy.

The policies of the Reform Party — co-written by Harper and Preston Manning — consistently opposed legislation banning third-party spending as unconstitutional, and opposed legislation preventing corporations from contributing to political parties.

During Harper’s political hiatus from 1998 to 2002, he headed up the corporate-funded National Citizens Coalition (NCC), arguably the most virulently right wing of Canada’s pro-business lobby groups. Generally, he kept a low profile — keeping the NCC’s anti-medicare and anti-Asian immigration policies on the back burner, pursuing instead the NCC’s attack on election-spending legislation as “gag laws.”

An NCC court challenge killed the 1984 legislation, and another struck down a similar 1993 federal law restricting third-party spending. The latter was a response to recommendations of the 1992 Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform that found that millions of dollars in corporate money spent in the 1988 free-trade election had a definite impact. The commission also found that 93 per cent of Canadians supported legislation to limit corporate contributions.

Harper was not impressed. He and the NCC were in court in B.C. fighting that province’s election-spending reforms, claiming corporate spending (and NCC spending) had no effect on election outcomes. Perhaps Harper had forgotten that the NCC helped him get elected to Parliament in Calgary in 1993, spending $50,000 for attack ads against Conservative Party MP Jim Hawkes, Harper’s former boss.

Harper also attacked new laws in Manitoba that banned corporate and union contributions to political parties, capped individual contributions at $3,000, and limited explicitly partisan third-party spending during elections to $5,000. It was legislation designed, in part, to keep big corporate money out; Harper called it “the most dangerous and oppressive gag law in Canadian history.”

On May 18, last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of federal legislation restricting third-party election spending. Last week, when replying to Harper’s new-found dedication to eradicating corporate influence, Public Works Minister Scott Brison accused Harper himself of being an unregistered lobbyist when he was with the NCC. He later retracted the statement when the NCC insisted that it was a public advocacy group that does not lobby politicians.

But Brison may have apologized too soon. NCC vice-president Gerry Nicholls’s claim that the organization is not a lobby group is hard to swallow. NCC founder Colin Brown took Ontario Conservative premiers Bill Davis and John Robarts on chartered flights to the Masters Golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. The NCC was given a special meeting with finance minister Michael Wilson in 1984 to lobby him on deficit cuts.

In 1994, NCC head David Somerville formally lobbied finance officials on reforming the capital-gains tax. The NCC presents position papers to public hearings. Harper knows the NCC lobbies — because in May, 1995, he argued in the House affairs committee in support of the NCC, which was demanding a seat at the table when public policy was discussed.

An organization has to spend 20 per cent or more of its budget on such activity before it has to register as a lobbyist. But the NCC refuses to reveal where it gets its money or how it spends it, so we have no idea how much it spends on lobbying.

Stephen Harper’s proposed “federal accountability act” is just part of the Conservative Leader’s desperate attempt at a political makeover. Polls show that Canadians do not trust Harper nor do they like his policies. Given his long and sorry history of defending corporate money in politics, there is every reason to mistrust him still. Sensing power slipping though his fingers, Harper is abandoning his principles for power.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...