Commentary: Silence of the lambs: local election reforms deafeningly so

by Dermod Travis,


In just over a year, millions of British Columbians will be invited back to the polls to elect local councils across B.C. and – if it’s like last time – about one in three will accept the invitation.

What’s the B.C. government’s prescription to try and remedy this indifference? Not much. In its recently released white paper on local government election reform, the government proposes some legislative tinkering this winter and more consultation over the coming years.

But this isn’t the time for the government to be timid. It’s a chance to be bold, a rare opportunity to strengthen and modernize local government.

In the recent provincial election four mayors and ten councillors from 13 communities were elected to the legislature. While these MLAs can continue in both jobs, thereby avoiding byelections, the situation is far from ideal. Yet, the government is silent on the issue.

The government could overhaul the rules regarding local councils holding in camera meetings. Again silent. They could have gotten ahead of the debate on amalgamation that’s taking place in some regions. Again silent.

Even when they get it right in the white paper, they do so only to a point.

Ending anonymous election advertising is the right thing to do. But the government needs to get a grip on what constitutes election advertising and at what point you need to register as a third-party advertiser.

Their draft definition of election advertising is far too broad, capturing virtually all issue-based advertising in its wake.

Rather than a definition that acts as a chill on the ongoing work of organizations, B.C. should chill-out and rip a page from Ontario’s playbook which makes the distinction between advertising that promotes or opposes a candidate and public policy advertising that doesn’t.

Under the proposed registration rules, photocopy a brochure on housing and chances are you better register. Don’t and risk going to jail. At the federal level, a third-party is only required to register “after having incurred election advertising expenses of $500.”

Then there are the two elephants in the room: spending and donation caps.

The government says it’s too late in the day to impose spending limits for 2014. Balderdash.

The 2010 Local Government Elections Task Force recommended limits. They’ve been in place federally since 1974 and provincially since 1995.

Campaign teams have ample time to adjust their plans if limits are adopted during the next session of the legislature, since they would only apply to expenses incurred after October 1, 2014.

Others claim that the disparity in the population of towns and cities means more time is needed to consult. That argument doesn’t hold water either.

Provincially, the limit is $146,437 in all 85 ridings, even though Stikine has 13,219 registered voters and Surrey-Cloverdale has 51,811. At the federal level, limits are set by taking the number of voters in a riding into account, as other provinces do at the local level.

Limits should apply to third-parties as well. When it comes to local elections third-parties often spend far in excess of the existing provincial limit of $3,138 per riding.

In 2011, For a Better Sechelt popped up to campaign against every candidate seeking re-election in that community. They spent $46,200 in a district with 7,252 registered voters, nearly 15 times the provincial limit.

And the government’s continued silence on contribution limits is deafening.

Last time out, Vancouver businessman Rob Macdonald coughed up $960,000 for the NPA, a donation that single-handedly demonstrates why a cap on contributions is long overdue in B.C.

Most Canadian cities already have strict rules over who can give to a campaign and how much they can give. In Montreal the annual cap is $300, in Toronto $2,500, Winnipeg $750 and $5,000 in Calgary.

But at the end of the day, no matter how well-intentioned the government’s first round of reforms may be, they are – for the most part – cosmetic in nature when contrasted against the public’s very real loss of confidence in local democracy.

Without meaningful electoral finance reform including election spending and contribution limits, candidacy for local government will – by and large – remain the purview of the affluent and well-connected.

This was an opportunity to fix a broken system, to increase accessibility to public office and to strengthen local democracy.

Instead, British Columbians are served up a dose of legislative pablum.


Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.