My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) takes stock of the brewing controversy over Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda's fundraising activities. With the Hill Times running a lead story on her 2005 fundraiser and persistent questions in the House of Commons, it is becoming apparent that this issue is quickly becoming a liability for the Conservative government. While last week's discussion focused on the now-cancelled Oda fundraiser sponsored by a CanWest lobbyist and a 2005 Corus-hosted fundraiser, further investigation into Oda's past campaign financing demonstrates that the close ties between Oda and industry lobbyists may run deeper than even Angus realized.
According to Elections Canada data, Oda held a similar fundraiser in May 2004 – before she was even elected to the House of Commons – that attracted enormous corporate support from the broadcast industry including Alliance Atlantis, Astral, CanWest, and CHUM, as well as from more than a dozen senior executives from major broadcast and cable companies.
Once elected, the support continued. With Oda installed as the Conservative Canadian Heritage critic, her riding association last year reported contributions from a veritable who's who of broadcast and copyright lobby groups and companies. These include broadcasters (Corus, Vision TV), cable companies (Rogers, Shaw, and Cogeco), record companies (Sony, Universal, Warner, EMI), and copyright lobby groups (Canadian Recording Industry Association, Canadian Motion Pictures Distributors Association, Entertainment Software Association).
Moreover, as the odds-on favourite to become the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Oda accepted thousands of dollars from broadcasting and copyright interests during the most recent election campaign, with her two largest contributions coming from individuals linked to two industry giants – Rogers and Standard Radio.
While there have been no allegations that the fundraising was not fully compliant with the law, it does raise the potential for repeated questions about the fairness and impartiality of the policy process. Oda enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the broadcasting industry before entering politics, yet her close ties to lobby groups will unquestionably cause some discomfort for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has emphasized greater government accountability and reduced influence of well-heeled lobby groups.
Moreover, should the government proceed with a major broadcast review or introduce new copyright legislation, Oda's fundraising practices will likely come to the fore as critics wonder aloud whether those groups obtained political access and exercised greater influence over the policy process.
The column concludes by noting that the cloud over Canadian Heritage policy could not come at a worse time. With the need for a new CRTC chair, the prospect of a new policy initiative to address the future of Canadian broadcasting and content rules, and the focus on copyright reform, the department promises to be in the spotlight in the months ahead. These initiatives may now be forced to share that spotlight with a regular stream of questions about Oda's fundraising activities that could leave Canadians asking whether there is a hefty price tag associated with key government policies.