Last updated: May 14, 2012 10:52 am
UBC laboratory defends controversial donation to the BC Liberals
VANCOUVER (CUP) — Political fundraising dinners have landed a particle physics lab at UBC in hot water.
TRIUMF, the Canadian national physics laboratory located at UBC's Vancouver campus, donated a total of $1950 to the B.C. Liberal Party in the form of tickets to fundraising events in 2011. These donations have come under fire from IntegrityBC, a British Columbian political watchdog group, as well as the B.C. NDP — both of which claim that, as TRIUMF is a registered charitable organization which receives taxpayer dollars, the donations should be returned.
According to TRIUMF’s director, Nigel Lockyer, the donations were made so that he could attend a handful of B.C. Liberal fundraising receptions in order for him to speak with Liberal MLAs Moira Stillwell and Richard Lee, as well as B.C. Premier Christy Clark.
“It’s a cost-effective, time-effective way to interact with the people in the government. That’s the way the system works,” said Lockyer.
TRIUMF, which is a joint venture between 17 Canadian universities, is a registered non-profit charitable organization in Canada. This organization is also linked with TRIUMF Accelerators Inc., which holds the facility’s operating licence, and TRIUMF Technologies Inc., a for-profit technology commercialization arm.
Lockyer stated that, although the lab does not receive any funding directly from the provincial government, he feels lobbying them is still important.
“We want to be sure that if there’s a phone call from Ottawa to Victoria and they say, ‘We’d like to ask you about TRIUMF,’ they know what it is, and they say it’s an important laboratory for us,” he said. “We have to be viewed as valuable to the province in order to get federal money.”
In total, TRIUMF receives about $55 million per year in public funding from the federal government, according to Lockyer. Their commercial profits total roughly $1 million each year.
TRIUMF CFO Henry Chen was adamant that no taxpayer dollars were used for the donations. “It’s not from taxpayer money, it’s other revenues that we generate,” he said.
According to Tim Meyer, TRIUMF’s head of strategic planning and communications, “the contributions were made from TRIUMF, the registered non-profit organization.” Meyer further clarified that the money came out of what he called a “segregated, non-public account.”
“Registered non-profit charities can make political contributions. There’s no law against that,” said Meyer.
However, Nola Western, the deputy chief electoral officer with Elections B.C., contested this statement. “It doesn’t matter what the source of the money was, what account it came from, a charitable organization is not permitted to make a political contribution,” said Western. “[A charity] is prohibited from buying tickets to fundraising functions for political parties.”
B.C. NDP caucus chair Shane Simpson also criticized the donations.
“I think that the suggestion that you can separate those dollars in some way justifies it is problematic. I think TRIUMF should accept that that’s just not an avenue that should be available to them because they get significant taxpayer money to fund their operation,” said Simpson.
Simpson said some of the onus should be on the Liberals themselves. “The Liberal Party of B.C. should not be accepting money from charities, and if it came from a charity, then they are obliged to give it back and they should do it as soon as possible,” he said.
“It would be better if they just felt confident they could get to the government without having to pull out their chequebook to do it.”
Dermod Travis, director of IntegrityBC, agreed. IntegrityBC is a provincial electoral-finance watchdog group, which initiated criticism of the donations. “Charities don’t cherry pick; that this fund comes from this person, and this donation comes from that person, and therefore we can take this little bit of money and give it to that political party and get away with it,” said Travis. “If TRIUMF is saying that effective lobbying is only done by making political donations to the party in power, we would have some very serious concerns with such a statement.”
Although the ultimate source of the funds may differ, Travis likened these donations to those made to the B.C. Liberals by SFU director Wilf Hurd. The cost of Hurd’s donations, just over $2000, was reimbursed to Hurd by SFU, but after the Vancouver Sun reported on the issue, SFU altered their policies to prohibit similar donations in the future.
Although Lockyer insisted the two instances were different due to where the money came from, he also played down the importance of both. “This is really how the world works, but you can see, in our case, it’s not a lot of money,” Lockyer said. “I remember for SFU, it [was] not a lot of money either.
“If we spend $1000 on average [per year] out of a million dollars it’s not a lot,” Lockyer added. “I really don’t think this is something that we want to stop doing.”
B.C. Liberal advanced education minister Naomi Yamamoto declined to comment on the matter.