Macleans: Follow the money

An MP inquiry into anti-Semitism vowed to be open and independent. Its shadowy funding says otherwise.

by John Geddes – Macleans.ca, July 28, 2011

When a group of Conservative, Liberal and NDP MPs formed the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism in 2009, they decided to work outside of the normal structures of Parliament and raise their own money to hold a conference and conduct an inquiry. But transparency would be crucial, they said, pledging on their website to “voluntarily disclose all sources of funding” and remain independent of the Conservative government, advocacy groups and “Jewish community organizations.” By the time they released their report this month, however—warning that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Canada—that vow of full disclosure seemed to be forgotten, and the coalition appeared closely tied to the government.

Conservative MP Scott Reid, chairman of the coalition’s inquiry steering committee, said the CPCCA promised anonymity to private donors, who contributed a total of $127,078. As for their relationship with the government, the coalition accepted $451,280 from the department of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who sat on the CPCCA’s inquiry steering committee as an ex officio member. The coalition’s key conclusion that a “new anti-Semitism” tends to focus on criticism of Israel echoes Kenney’s long-standing position.

Perhaps surprisingly, the MPs’ ethics code appears not to oblige them to reveal the names of their backers. The Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner didn’t comment specifically on the CPCCA, but told Maclean’s the “Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons” requires only that individual MPs disclose money they receive—not MPs acting as a group. “There is no mechanism within the code for a group of MPs to disclose a collective gift,” the commissioner’s office said. The coalition knows the rules. “The ethics commissioner doesn’t cover [the CPCCA] because the donations went to an entity, not to an MP,” said Mike Firth, Reid’s executive assistant.

If the CPCCA’s private backers remain unnamed, the government’s support is a matter of record. Still, the arrangement between Kenney’s department and the coalition isn’t straightforward. The grant was paid to a third party, a non-governmental organization called the Parliamentary Centre, a not-for-profit group that helps legislatures around the world, mainly in developing countries, to build their capacity. The centre took on a narrowly limited role for the CPCCA, acting as the recipient of both the Citizenship and Immigration grant and private contributions. As a registered charity, it was able to issue tax receipts to those anonymous donors.

Citizenship and Immigration refused to release its full agreement with the centre. A summary description says the grant was provided to the centre to “host the Ottawa Conference for Combating Anti-Semitism.” That three-day conference was put on last fall by the CPCCA; the centre played, at most, a supporting role. “There was government funding that was earmarked for this particular conference, and we were approached because we had NGO status, and charitable status, and had the systems in place to manage donor funding,” said centre spokeswoman Petra Andersson-Charest. “We were not involved in designing or managing the subject matter that was discussed,” added Ivo Balinov, senior expert in parliamentary development at the centre.

Firth said most of the grant money went to pay expenses of conference participants, including visiting parliamentarians and experts. The coalition also held 10 days of hearings in 2009 and 2010 on Parliament Hill, gathering testimony from dozens of witnesses concerned about anti-Semitism. The CPCCA did not invite outspoken critics of Israel’s stance toward the Palestinians to testify. Its final conclusions were faulted by some for blurring the distinction between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy.

If the coalition’s findings were controversial, its funding mostly escaped attention. But it’s far from typical. MPs normally work within their own office budgets, or through official House committees, which are of course paid for by Parliament. The CPCCA’s broad membership largely insulated it from partisan scrutiny. Along with well-known Conservatives like Reid and Manitoba MP Candice Hoeppner, the MPs who joined included prominent Liberals such as interim party leader Bob Rae, and veteran New Democrats like Peter Stoffer and Pat Martin. That opposition support, and close compatibility with Kenney, made it unlikely the coalition’s financing, however unusual, would be criticized from within political circles. It seems any questions about this shadowy new model for MPs to tackle a policy issue will have to come from outside.

http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/07/28/follow-the-money-2/

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