Issued on: 23/03/2022 – 06:04Modified: 23/03/2022 – 06:02
London (AFP) – From huge donations to political parties and bids for games of tennis with senior ministers, to nominations for peerages, Russian money in British politics has been a recurrent issue for years.
But the invasion of Ukraine has intensified calls for party finances to be cleaned up.
Anti-corruption activist Bill Browder, formerly a major investor in Russia, said it is not just the ruling Conservative party that is affected.
“Over the last 20 years it’s grown up on both sides of the political spectrum,” Browder, whose Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in prison in 2009, told AFP.
In July 2020, the UK parliament’s powerful Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) laid bare the extent of the issue.
“Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to (Vladimir) Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK,” it said.
That “positions them to assist Russian influence operations”, the cross-party grouping warned.
But the committee criticised the government for failing to look into possible meddling in UK politics, particularly the divisive 2016 referendum on European Union membership.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has stonewalled calls for an investigation into the manner of his Brexit success, and his Conservatives have come in for particular scrutiny.
The main opposition Labour party accused it of having received nearly £2 million ($2.6 million, 2.4 million euros) from wealthy Russian donors since Johnson came to power in 2019.
Donors include Alexander Temerko, a former top Russian defence ministry official and executive at the oil giant Yukos, and Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband, Vladimir, served in Putin’s cabinet before falling out of favour.
Lubov Chernukhin has been described in the British media as the largest donor in the history of the Conservative party, having donated more than £2 million since 2012.
She famously paid tens of thousands of pounds at a Tory fundraiser to play tennis with the then prime minister David Cameron and with Johnson.
She also took part in an evening with Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron at Downing Street, and current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Labour wants the Conservative co-chairman Ben Elliott, who is in charge of party fundraising, to resign because of his links to wealthy Russians through his elite concierge company.
Johnson is also facing scrutiny over the appointment to the unelected House of Lords of his friend Evgeny Lebedev, whose father, Alexander, was a KGB agent.
According to the Sunday Times, when he was foreign secretary Johnson attended parties at the younger Lebedev’s luxury Tuscan villa.
But British-Russian Lebedev, who owns the London Evening Standard and Independent newspapers, has denied being a Russian stooge, and like Temerko has denounced the invasion.
The Tories themselves maintain that all donations are registered, legal and come from naturalised British citizens.
In turn, they have accused Labour of “rank hypocrisy” for having received £1 million in donations from individuals of Russian origin.
Peter Goldsmith, a former attorney general under Labour ex-prime minister Tony Blair, took leave of absence from the House of Lords after reports his law firm accepted work for foreign clients, including the Russian government.
Tory Lord Greg Barker has resigned from his position as head of EN+, a mining giant whose principal shareholder is the now sanctioned Oleg Deripaska.
The ISC in its report said it was “notable that a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state”.
“These relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them,” the committee added.
Daniel I. Weiner, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s election and government programme, said: “A donor that is Russian does not mean they support Vladimir Putin.
“That being said, in a country like Russia where even the private industry is intertwined with government, you can’t really become an oligarch without the support of the Kremlin.”
Browder was blunter in calling Russian money a “national security threat”.
“Previous donations should be looked at with great scepticism and there should be no future donations accepted from any Russian or anyone linked to the dictatorship,” he added.
When I spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December, he said “there’s a lot of unfinished business.” He was speaking about his decision to stay on as leader of the Liberal Party. But that statement also describes the parliamentary year that begins on Monday when MPs convene for the first time in 2023.
Last year was a reasonably productive one for Parliament. But those 12 months also left behind a sizeable pile of work that remains to be completed. And while the Liberal government has much left to do if it hopes to be re-elected, the major opposition parties can’t quite claim yet that they’ve done all they can to make their own pitches to voters.
For those reasons, an election in 2023 seems unlikely. But it should still be a consequential year — and it will start with the legislation that was still in progress when MPs and senators broke for the holidays.
What’s old is new again
Before the break, the government’s newest firearms legislation (C-21) was stuck at the public safety committee as critics accused it of overreach. In the face of that criticism, Liberals said they were willing to consider feedback; it remains to be seen what kind of changes will be necessary to move the bill forward.
If senators agree to some or all of those amendments, C-11 would become the 24th government bill the Senate has amended since Justin Trudeau began appointing independent members to the chamber in 2016.
The Senate, meanwhile, is in possession of bills to create a new national council on reconciliation (which would report to Parliament on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples) and establish the Online News Act, which would facilitate payments from major Internet platforms for the use of content from Canadian media outlets.
What’s new is significant
Another dozen government bills are at second reading in the House — but perhaps the most interesting of those items was only just tabled in December.
Bill C-35 sets out how and under what conditions the federal government would fund child care and early learning programs at the provincial level. In effect, it would put into law what the Liberal government started when it negotiated a series of bilateral child-care funding agreements with each province. If C-35 passes Parliament, it will make it much harder for some future government to abandon the program.
Nothing the Trudeau government does on the question of energy and the future of the oil and gas industry in Canada is ever allowed to pass quietly. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has tried to start a fight with the federal government already over the mere name of the bill. But beyond the partisan politics, Wilkinson’s bill should serve as a jumping-off point for a very real discussion about where the Canadian and global economies are headed and how Canada will get there.
The opposition agenda
With each of these bills, the Liberals will be putting some pressure on Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to either support the government’s agenda or explain what he would do differently. But the Conservatives will have their own moves to make, particularly at various House committees.
The NDP has shown little, if any, reluctance to go along with such investigations — and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has rivalled Poilievre lately in his willingness to denounce the Liberal government. But the New Democrats also have other things to play for lately — namely, that confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals.
Singh surely wants to be seen holding the government to account. He also no doubt wants to show that the NDP was able to achieve something with that deal. And he may need at least another year to do that.
The new dental benefit the government promised the NDP is still a work in progress and New Democrats have given the government until the end of this year to table pharmacare legislation, which would at least set out broad parameters for what eventually could be a national program.
Beyond Parliament Hill
And then there is merely everything else on the agenda.
Justice Paul Rouleau has until February 6 to present cabinet with a final report from the public commission probing the government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the convoy protests that snarled downtown Ottawa and multiple border crossings a year ago. (Cabinet will then have until February 20 to release that report.) On Feb. 7, the prime minister is scheduled to meet the premiers to discuss a grand bargain on health-care funding.
Even if Trudeau and the premiers broadly agree on what to do with health care, the prime minister is signalling an increasing willingness to engage in the fight over the notwithstanding clause. And even when Trudeau’s not looking for a fight, Danielle Smith will be trying to start one ahead of what could be a very consequential election in Alberta sometime this spring.
Even if that’s the biggest election in Canada this year (Manitoba and Prince Edward Island are also due to go to the polls), the next 12 months will be full of the sorts of debates and challenges that leave a mark and will shape the next national vote.
Even though federal political leaders have been using some heated, election-style language to snipe at each other in recent weeks, pundits say it’s unlikely Canadians will go to the polls in 2023.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was active during the six-week parliamentary break, making stops in Saskatoon, Windsor, Ont. and Trois-Rivieres, Que. to talk up his government’s accomplishments. He also occasionally took shots at Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his recent assertion that “everything seems broken” in Canada.
“Crossing your arms and saying ‘Canada is broken’ is not the way to build a better future for Canadians,” Trudeau said.
The Conservative leader also hit back at Trudeau on Friday during an address to his caucus prior to the House of Commons’ return. He blamed the prime minister for inflation, the recent travel chaos and deficit spending while appearing to goad Trudeau into an election battle.
“If you’re not responsible for any of these things, if you can’t do anything about it, then why don’t you get out of the way and let someone lead who can?” Poilievre said as his MPs cheered and applauded.
Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre addresses his Conservative caucus and highlights crime rates during Justin Trudeau’s time as prime minister.
Speaking to his own caucus earlier this month, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh touted his party’s confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals, saying that the deal was “delivering for Canadians.”
But Singh also indicated that he had his eyes set higher.
“We’re going to fight for every bit of help and hope we can win for Canadians and then I’m going to run for prime minister of Canada,” he said.
But Tim Powers of Summa Strategies said he doesn’t think any of the leaders are itching for an election right now, despite their recent posturing.
“The conditions don’t exist for an election this year,” he told CBC. “I don’t think anybody’s really going to have a breakaway moment.”
Shachi Kurl, president at the Angus Reid Institute, and Éric Grenier, writer and publisher of TheWrit.ca, joined Power & Politics Friday to discuss the latest polling data.
“We will only have an election this year if Justin Trudeau sees the winning conditions exist for him,” Powers said. “I don’t think the Liberals are yet ready to manufacture an election.”
Sharan Kaur of SK Consulting agreed that an election is unlikely this year. She suggested the Conservatives will still use the economy to needle the Liberals and position themselves as a government-in-waiting.
“I would say the biggest looming issue of 2023 is going to be cost of living, a potential recession, and that will probably be the main pivot point for the Conservatives,” she said, adding that she thinks the Conservative Party is the only one that wants an election this year.
But Powers said Poilievre might be happy to wait and give himself more time to pitch himself to Canadians.
“I think Poilievre is content to have the time to let the Liberals age and build a brand and a platform that can be useful to him,” he said.
If the Liberal-NDP deal holds for its intended duration, the next election won’t happen until 2025.
But the agreement may face a tougher test in 2023 than it did in 2022 because it includes more benchmarks for progress — including a commitment to table pharmacare legislation. Singh also threatened to pull out of the deal if the Liberals don’t address the health-care crisis.
“The confidence-and-supply agreement gets a little bit more muscular [this year],” said Brad Lavigne of Consul Public Affairs.
But even if the deal falls apart this year, Lavigne said, it wouldn’t necessarily trigger an election.
“If you look back at recent history, [former prime minister Stephen] Harper had minority Parliaments in which he had no such supply agreement with any one opposition party, yet he maintained the confidence of the House for many years,” he said. “That is an option that is open to Mr. Trudeau as well.”
Even if an election doesn’t happen this year, Kaur said she doesn’t expect the political posturing to stop.
“We’re going to see a lot of pandering in the next year, especially around economic challenges, cost of living for people — just like the bread-and-butter issues,” she said.
For as long as they’ve both been in office, Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau have been kindred political spirits. Both bring the kind of youthful glamour to public office that only seems to come around once in a generation. Both share the same progressive values on issues like climate change, diversity and social inclusion. And both have seen their popularity at home decline in the face of proactive pandemic policies and the vocal opposition to them.
But while Trudeau has been adamant about sticking around to fight the next election, Ardern shocked everyone with her recent announcement that she would be stepping aside after just over five years in power. “I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time,” she said.
It’s been tempting for Canadian pundits to draw a line between Ardern’s decision to leave and Trudeau’s insistence on staying, especially since both have faced similarly underwhelming poll numbers of late. But there’s another line they should be drawing, one that points to the spike in abuse and violent threats these leaders have contended with.
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For Trudeau, that abuse has become part of the background noise of his political life over the last couple of years. Sometimes, as with the ugly protest in Hamilton the other day that saw an angry crowd surge toward the prime minister and his police protection, it gets a bit scary. But Trudeau, who has yet to back away from a fight in his political career, wasn’t about to let it cow him. “We’re not going to let a handful of angry people interfere with the democratic processes that Canadians have always taken pride in,” he said.
But in some respects, they already are interfering in the democratic process.
Anti-vaccine activists routinely consume far more of the political oxygen than their numbers would suggest is appropriate, and they often pride themselves on directing vitriol and abuse at elected officials. That makes it more difficult for those officials to meet with constituents, interact with the public and otherwise do their job. “Those kinds of things suck your energy,” Liberal MP Hedy Fry told the Toronto Star. “I can understand the concept of burnout but I also think contributing to that is all the threats [Ardern] got online.”
Ardern’s departure may represent a victory for the anti-vaccine movement and the misogynists in their midst, but make no mistake: it’s a loss for almost everyone else. We’re facing a tragedy of the political commons, one that is rapidly eroding the public’s trust in both elected officials and the offices they hold.
And the more our political commons are polluted with things like rage-farming, conspiracy theories and toxic partisanship, the less attractive it becomes for anyone of standing or substance to run for public office.
This is not a new problem, and it didn’t just start when Trudeau was elected prime minister. As Harper-era cabinet minister James Moore noted on Twitter, “I, and many other cabinet colleagues, had multiple death threats and elevated security at work and at home. It was frequent.”
If people like Jacinda Ardern are finding the cost of public service to be prohibitively high, it’ll be the rest of us who end up paying the price in the end, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver. #JacindaArdern
There should be an incentive, then, for everyone involved to reduce the temperature and restore at least a modicum of civility to our politics.
If they don’t, they’re painting themselves — and us — into a pretty dangerous corner. Who, other than the political lifer (hello, Pierre Poileivre!) or the hereditary torch-bearer (that’s you, Justin Trudeau!), would want the job of prime minister right now? If you’re an accomplished doctor, lawyer, business person, social worker or teacher, do you really want to give up your livelihood, move to Ottawa and get abused on social media 24/7? And how are we supposed to attract more women and other underrepresented groups to public life when they’re the ones who tend to receive the brunt of this abuse?
The answer, if we stay on this path, is that we won’t. That probably suits some people just fine. But if people like Jacinda Ardern are finding the cost of public service to be prohibitively high, it’ll be the rest of us who end up paying the price in the end.