Access to public officials not for sale

Think back a few months, to a time when Alberta still had a Tory government. If that benighted group had been caught offering one-hour of access for a private chat with the premier — as a party fundraiser — what do you think the tiny NDP opposition would have said?

Think back a few months, to a time when Alberta still had a Tory government. If that benighted group had been caught offering one-hour of access for a private chat with the premier — as a party fundraiser — what do you think the tiny NDP opposition would have said?

Well, you don’t have to think too hard, because shortly after Ed Stelmach became premier, the Tories tried to do exactly that. It was fodder for all the wretched pundits like me, who saw this as selling private access to public office.

In very short order, the plan was cancelled, and Stelmach probably never got another chance to find out what the rich and well-connected class in Alberta was thinking. Right?

I do not recall the NDP being silent on this at the time. Quite the opposite.

So imagine our surprise that the NDP under Rachel Notley has been planning to do the same thing.

On Tuesday, the party held a fundraiser at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, where for $250, you could be seated in the sumptuous quarters of the gallery, mingle with the Alberta cabinet and hear a stirring speech.

Except, for an hour or so before the main event, a select group of private invitees were offered a much more intimate gathering with the premier and members of cabinet, for $1,000. You know, a unique chance to bend the premier’s ear, give some well-considered advice — and press for funding of your favourite project.

When word got out Monday that the party was planning to do this, there was a fire drill in party headquarters.

Party president Chris O’Halloran told The Canadian Press that the special access event was cancelled.

Notley spokeswoman Cheryl Oates then said no, it’s not cancelled. The event has been cleared by the province’s ethics commissioner. The event is on.

I suggest nobody cares if the event was cleared by the ethics commissioner. People generally would say otherwise.

O’Halloran said the event was sold to select people through phone calls and e-mails as an opportunity to give them “more time to share their opinions and feelings.”

While the denied people (like me) might consider this as selling access to the highest decision-makers in the province, he would not tell reporters the real reason why the party decided not to go forward with the $1,000 fundraiser add-on. The only other reason I can think of to cancel would be that nobody in Alberta thought an hour alone with the NDP cabinet would be worth $1,000. And this isn’t the case, because the president of the party was somehow over-ruled.

This cannot turn out well. There is not enough money in all of Alberta to make public trust of the impartiality of our government worth selling. Particularly for the NDP and particularly now.

There has been too much complaining from the moral high ground of the opposition benches, reflecting ever-declining trust of the previous regime for the public to accept even a sniff of that sort of cynicism now.

Our government doesn’t have a track record of good stewardship yet — and could not possibly have one for several years. Right now, in a significant economic downturn, when trust for the future is vitally needed, trust is all we have for the government to use to work its agenda.

Between elections, public trust is the government’s mandate from heaven.

The new NDP government must remain squeaky clean, above reproach in its actions, or there’s nothing left to work with.

If not, then after 40 years of Tory rule, it would really be true that all governments are the same. And we’d lost trust of the last one.

I don’t know how many thousands of dollars it takes to disappoint either the true believers or the soft supporters of the governing party, but I suggest Tuesday’s fundraiser tally is not near enough.

A party fundraiser to hear a speech, with a nice meal and a cash bar? Perfectly fine. But a closed-door pre-event to whisper unrecorded nothings into the premier’s ear?

I said Stelmach’s group was crazy, and they had the benefit of decades of experience in what you can do and what you cannot do, when you hold power in a democracy.

The NDP was supposed to have a better conscience.

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