Summerside PEI straddling the political fence

Coffee shops buzzing over council’s long-standing tradition to purchase fundraising dinner tickets from all political parties

CORNWALL, PEI, Mar 23, 2014/ Troy Media/ – It is perhaps as good an example as any of that all old saying that “all politics is local.”

The city council in Summerside, a community of approximately 15,000 people in the western part of PEI, is convinced one way to cultivate good relations with provincial and federal politicians is to purchase tickets to their fundraising dinners.

As municipal scandals go, this is admittedly on the lower end of the scale. The amount involved is less than $2,000 – chump change even for a small municipality like PEI’s second largest community. However, the topic has coffee shops buzzing and has even drawn the attention of the Canadian Taxpayer’s Association – a lobby group that speaks out against what it perceives as government waste at all levels.

The city has a policy of buying at least one ticket from any political party that is seeking to replenish its coffers. This is a long-standing practice and Mayor Basil Stewart – mayor since 1985 and a strong proponent of the policy – has served notice he doesn’t want it changed and, so far, his council is solidly behind him.

Stewart, a former municipal policeman, sees it as simply good business. By supporting all parties, he said, the city is able to “maintain good relations” with everybody.

Since governments change, he said, it never hurts to have friends on all sides. Certainly, the city is not the only ones in the province that think that way. Many businesses top the list of donors to both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties (the only two parties that have ever formed a government in the province). It is not unusual for the same company to be the top donor to both parties.

Professional offices like lawyers, accountants and architects tend to have a mix of people who are identified with some party to ensure they keep themselves in line for government work no matter who is in power. In PEI, the government is the biggest business and nobody wants the tap turned off when the parties switch offices.

The Atlantic Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation maintains the duly elected mayor and council should not have to pay for access to senior levels of government. Kevin Lacey maintains if the mayor or councillors want to support federal and provincial politicians, they should use their own money.

It would be an exaggeration to say that access has to be bought. Virtually all provincial and federal politicians have their home numbers in the phone book and routinely handle hundreds of calls a week from their constituents on everything from job applications to filling out a passport form.

It is more likely a case of “this is what we have always done” and stopping it might be perceived as a slap in the face by the parties. For the small amount involved, it is simply not worth the risk of upsetting the applecart.

So why is it an issue now? Well, the city recently decided to post its hospitality expenses online and the media picked up on the figures.

Perhaps the one with the most egg on his face is New Democratic Party leader Michael Redmond. When he was contacted by the CBC, he derided the practice saying “Their money would be much better spent on education, health, and local charities than it would be on feeling compelled to support political parties.”

This was the first year the NDP asked the city to buy a ticket. Not surprisingly, the city council said “yes” – they have a policy of supporting any party that could win. Although the New Democrats currently have no representation in the 27 seat legislature, the fact they are second in the polls means the next election could be a horse race if that support holds. He essentially said they made the request because that’s the way politics is done in PEI, which is a pretty lame defence.

Look for the policy to survive, unless there is a major backlash from town residents. Council is up for re-election in November and a major outcry would likely scuttle the practice.

However, it just seems like too insignificant an amount and the issue is likely to blow over quickly. No matter what level of politics you are talking about, you don’t win nine consecutive elections like Stewart has without being good at reading the mood of the voters.

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.

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