Christy Clark campaigns in Vancouver: the B.C. Liberals raised more money than some federal parties. (B.C. Broadcast Consortium)

Getting ‘big money’ out of B.C. politics

It’s not as simple as banning corporate, union donations

We’ve just seen the last B.C. election where “big money” rampages across the B.C. political landscape, unrestrained by rules or common decency. Or have we?

Pressure to reform the “wild west” of Canadian politics reached an all-time high leading up to this election.

The B.C. Liberals raked in $13 million in 2016, more than some federal parties, in the province notorious for having no limit to personal, corporate or union donations. Real estate developers, resource industries and hospitality companies led the way.

The B.C. NDP lagged behind in fundraising, but going into the election they managed to scoop the largest single donation in the province’s history, more than $650,000 from the United Steelworkers and various locals. It then emerged that the party’s top campaign managers were being paid directly by the U.S.-based union.

The B.C. Liberal riches became more embarrassing when it was learned that lobbyists were being pressured into buying tables at fundraising dinners, then charging the costs back to their corporate clients. This violates Elections BC rules, because it conceals the true source of the donations.

The B.C. Liberals ended up returning nearly $60,000 in improperly reported donations, dating back to 2011, and revising their annual financial reports going back to 2005 to correct the sources of another $40,000.

The NDP unearthed a couple of improperly reported donations from last year worth $790, which was also returned.

Right up to the formal start of the campaign, both B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark and NDP leader John Horgan offered exclusive access to themselves for those who paid thousands of dollars to pitch whatever they were pitching to the next potential premier.

The logic of finance reform seems simple enough. Support for political parties should come only from individual eligible voters, and there should be a reasonable limit so wealthy people don’t have outsized influence.

I’ve advocated for this change for many years, as it was being grudgingly adopted by successive federal governments. But it’s not that simple.

Elections B.C. lists more than 250 “third party advertisers” that registered for the 2017 campaign. As usual, the list is dominated by teacher union locals and other labour groups, with a sprinkling of environmental groups and corporate interests from mining suppliers to breweries.

Some seem to be genuine grassroots outfits. For example, Fernie-based Citizens Concerned About Bill Bennett can probably stand down now that their long-time MLA has retired from politics. The Terrace Yacht Club seems innocent enough as well.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson jumped into the provincial election early, which the former NDP MLA is perfectly entitled to do. But at what point does his staff support from city hall constitute an election expense?

And one of Robertson’s communications staff served in a senior role with the NDP campaign. Is that a generous gesture by an individual who took time off to pitch in, or an in-kind donation?

A Facebook page called B.C. Proud was set up, running anti-NDP attack ads warning of job losses, BC Hydro and natural gas rate increases in a Horgan administration. Another outfit calling itself Future Prosperity for B.C. popped up, running “Say Anything John” ads that sound like they’re created by the B.C. Liberal Party.

In direct donations, the B.C. Liberals decided to brazen it out for one more election and then turn the issue of campaign finance over to an independent review. Such a review would look at federal donation restrictions and also at Ontario, where not long ago the ruling provincial Liberals were setting fundraising quotas for cabinet ministers.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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