IntegrityBC: Submission to the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits established by the BC legislature in October 2014

While there are only specific two issues before the special committee in this first phase of your work, your recommendations may help contribute to restoring a modicum of faith in B.C.’s democracy.

Ultimately, this is about the public having confidence that a vote matters more than the size of a donor’s chequebook. British Columbians don’t have that confidence today. And why would they? Here’s what two donors to the B.C. Liberal party said about the reasoning behind their donations:

In 2009, G&F Financial Group paid $5,000 to attend a provincial Liberal fundraiser featuring Premier Gordon Campbell, with one of the financial institution’s representatives describing the event as an “opportunity to bring issues that are important to our Credit Union to the attention of a governing leader.”

In 2012, the head of TRIUMF – a registered charity that made $3,370 in prohibited political donations to the BC Liberals – was even more blunt: “It’s a cost-effective, time-effective way to interact with the people in the government. That’s the way the system works.”

That’s the way the system works?

Well, that’s not the way people in B.C. believe the system should work. If you don’t have confidence in the laws that govern elections why would you vote? It’s no coincidence that British Columbia has some of the lowest turnouts in Canada for local and provincial elections.

The Local Government Elections Task Force tabled its report on May 28th, 2010. Less than two months after that report, the B.C. government announced it had given the “green light” to implement the recommendations in time for the 2011 local elections.

On April 21, 2011, the government announced it would proceed with implementing the changes but for the 2014 local elections, not 2011. Following the 2013 general election, the government announced that it would implement some of the recommendations in time for the 2014 election and others for what would become the 2018 election.

Somehow, through fits and starts, the Task Force’s recommendations have managed to survive two premiers, three ministers (one of them twice) and two deputy ministers. Its 2010 package of reforms may still yet be fully in place within the decade.

Recently, British Columbians were told that the reason for the peculiar timing for this latest phase of the committee’s work is that elector organizations are most active while campaigning and, therefore, would be more likely to participate if the hearings overlapped with local elections.

Interestingly, this wasn’t a concern for the government when it released its White Paper on Local Government Elections Reform last September or its Discussion Paper on Expense Limits in Local Elections last November.

Given the four years taken to date and the four years before limits could take effect, it’s difficult to square the circle as to why this phase had to be undertaken during the recent local elections and completed three months before financial disclosure reports are submitted to Elections B.C. However, credit to the committee for the extension that was agreed to last month.

IntegrityBC’s submission will make reference to the Discussion Paper on Expense Limits in Local Elections released by the government in November 2013. Municipal elector organizations and municipal parties are used interchangeably throughout our submission.

 

Guiding principles

 

Finding excuses to keep campaign costs artificially high – as last year’s discussion paper seemed to try to do – was not the intent of the Local Government Elections Task Force’s 2010 recommendation on campaign expense limits. Accessibility was.

Limits have to be low enough so that they have meaning. It’s not just about getting money out of the process, it’s about getting good people into the process as well. Money must not be the barrier.

In the committee’s work, it is imperative that accurate data be relied upon to form the basis of legislative recommendations. IntegrityBC has serious reservations with some of the data and terminology that was used in the discussion paper. We will refer to a few of these instances in our submission.

 

Overall, spending is fairly low.” Really? According to who? Or what?

 

Last year’s discussion paper on campaign expense limits considered the spending of candidates who – in the words of the paper’s author(s) – ran “competitive campaigns” in B.C.’s 2008 and 2011 local elections. A sample from the top two-thirds of candidates “closest to winning a seat” was taken.

As an aside, applying that same yardstick – the top two-thirds of candidates closest to winning a seat – to the results of the 2014 Victoria council race, would have captured 17 candidates who received anywhere from 8.5 per cent of the popular vote on one end to 59.7 per cent on the other.

After reviewing the disclosure reports of almost 500 candidates, the discussion paper concluded: “Overall, spending is fairly low.” Compared to what, the paper doesn’t say.

However, one illustration would show the opposite to be true. In 2011, Dean Fortin’s campaign spent $76,722 in his bid for re-election in Victoria. In Regina – a city with more than the twice the number of voters (65,468 to 157,629) – a candidate for mayor had a spending limit of $62,635 in 2012.

Put another way: the Fortin campaign spent $1.17 for every eligible voter in Victoria. The limit in Regina in 2012 was 40 cents per eligible voter. Mr. Fortin’s campaign would have also far exceeded the limits in Quebec and Ontario.

According to the government’s discussion paper, only eight per cent of the campaigns – or roughly forty candidates – spent more than $50,000.

It’s difficult to accept the premise that “Overall, spending is fairly low,” when some of those 40 candidates will have likely spent more in a single community than the province permits to be spent in an entire riding during a provincial election campaign. And B.C.’s provincial limits are already among the highest in Canada.

What are some of the issues that the discussion paper should have touched on to help readers form more valid opinions?

 

  1. How many of the 500 campaigns exceeded the spending limits already established in other provinces such as Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and, if so, by how much?
  2. How many of the campaigns in communities with less than 5,000 eligible voters would have come in under a reasonable “base” limit before taking into account an additional top-up for the number of voters, as is done in Quebec and Ontario?
  3. What percentage of the 31 per cent of the candidates that spent less than $2,000 were elected and of the eight per cent who spent more than $50,000?
  4. What percentage of the 500 campaigns were incumbents seeking re-election?

 

It would have been more statistically valid to compare the campaigns of candidates who exceeded a set percentage of the popular vote rather than choosing an arbitrary two-thirds of candidates deemed to be “the contenders.” Percentage of popular vote is still the yardstick that most election authorities rely on.

We have included with our submission, a table listing campaign spending limits in a number of cities across Canada. As you will see, our Victoria-Regina illustration is not the exception.

In fact, campaign spending in B.C. is fairly high, if not the highest in Canada.

 

Per resident or per elector?

 

The mix and match use of statistics in the discussion paper creates a minefield of potential confusion.

Spending limits in Canada are generally set by the number of eligible or registered voters that live in a riding, city or ward. IntegrityBC is not aware of a single jurisdiction in Canada – municipal, provincial or federal – where spending limits are set on a per resident or per capita basis. Even B.C. does not at the provincial level. There may be such a model somewhere in Canada for some special circumstance, but it’s not standard practice.

Yet, when the paper illustrates local examples in B.C., it uses a per resident calculation. For other provinces, the paper uses a per elector statistic. Then, in other tables, the two statistics are thrown together as though they’re somehow the same thing. They’re not. It results in conclusions that may be misleading to the reader and faulty for the legislator.

One example: the paper notes that Timmins, Ontario has a population of 42,997. Despite being released in 2013 – and the 2011 census data being available – the discussion paper relied on 2006 census data. Since Ontario doesn’t set spending limits by population, the number has no relevance to the subject matter at hand anyways.

The paper notes that the spending limit for a candidate seeking the mayor’s chair in Timmins in 2010 was $35,549. It wasn’t. The limit was $32,268. This year, it was $32,695. Regrettably, the paper is riddled with similar errors.

If the committee recommends a spending limit based on total residents rather than eligible electors, it will have a duty to explain the rationale behind its decision and why no other jurisdictions in Canada do so.

 

Montreal

 

Montreal may be the best city in Canada for comparison purposes with cities in B.C. that have both municipal elector organizations and independent candidates seeking office. Toronto does not have municipal parties.

Unlike cities in B.C., Montreal is divided into boroughs that are comparable to mini-cities within a city. They are not wards in the traditional sense of the term. Each of the 19 boroughs boasts its own multi-member council.

In the 2013 election, a municipal party running a full slate of candidates in Montreal for the combined 103 positions on city council and the councils of the nineteen boroughs had a spending limit of $1.65 million. Only one party came close, spending $1.17 million.

However, it is interesting to note that if all things were equal between Montreal and Vancouver in regards to that $1.65 million spending limit, Vision Vancouver would have already ended their campaign with a surplus of $600,000 and the NPA a surplus of $450,000, based on their respective donor reports released a week prior to the vote.

But all things are not equal between the two cities. Vancouver has less than half the number of eligible voters compared to Montreal (483,644 to 1.1 million) and a full slate of candidates in Vancouver is 27, comprised of 11 candidates for council, nine for school board and seven for the parks board.

If Montreal’s overall spending limit of $1.50 per elector was applied to the actual number of eligible voters in Vancouver, the spending limit would drop from $1.65 million to $725,466 and that’s before adjusting for the difference in the number of elected positions between the two cities.

The argument that the obscene sums spent in Vancouver civic elections are necessary to be competitive as a candidate or party simply doesn’t hold water when compared to other cities in Canada. At all.

 

Local democracy will flourish with tough spending limits in place

 

As limits are discussed by this committee, consider how the big-four in Vancouver spent their budgets in 2011. Seventeen per cent of it went to research and polling, 25 per cent went to paid advertising in print, radio, TV and the Internet, and another 27 per cent went to salaries.

Only eleven cents of every dollar went to signs and brochures for voters.

So what happens in jurisdictions where there are spending limits? Candidates are more creative in how they campaign. They’re forced by necessity to find ways to start talking to voters in unscripted or at least less scripted ways. Unorthodox as that may seem.

In the recent Toronto election, candidates running for mayor had more than 45 live debates between the end of July and election day. The debates were hosted by service clubs, community associations, churches and other groups across the city.

 

Economies of scale

 

The committee needs to consider that 15 candidates running under the banner of a municipal elector organization does not necessarily equal 15 independent campaigns. You will also have to take into account the role of so-called slates in cities where municipal parties are not present, however part of that will be captured through spending limits on third parties.

 

Third party spending

 

In British Columbia, the spending limit for a third party in a general election is $3,200 per riding, with a province-wide cap of $150,000.

In Sechelt, a group called ‘For a Better Sechelt’ or FABS spent $46,200 in 2011. That’s nearly 15 times more than what they would be allowed to spend in the riding of Powell River-Sunshine Coast during a B.C. election.

In the riding of Stitkine, home to the most courted voters in B.C. earlier this year – the residents of Kitimat – the provincial third party limit is equivalent to 15 cents per voter.

In last April’s plebiscite on the Northern Gateway Pipeline in Kitimat, Douglas Channel Watch spent $14,363 on ads, supplies and other campaign expenses or $3.37 for each of the city’s 4,259 eligible voters. It is highly likely that Enbridge spent a tad more.

IntegrityBC supports spending limits for third parties during the campaign period. We also recommend that those limits be set on a per eligible voter basis.

However, we recommend that registration requirements for third party advertisers be revisited and that a minimum spending level be set before registration is required, as is done at the federal level and that the definition for election advertising as it applies to third parties be revisited to distinguish between advertising that supports or opposes a candidate and advocacy advertising that merely raises an issue, as is done in Ontario.

 

When should the spending clock start ticking?

 

In Winnipeg, registration for mayoral candidates begin registration May 1. Prior to that, candidates are not allowed to solicit donations or incur campaign expenditures. Registration for councillor candidates begins June 30. They cannot solicit funds or incur campaign expenses until they are registered. Registration for candidates ends September 16.

In Toronto, the campaign period starts from the day a candidate files their nomination papers, which they can do on the first business day of the calendar year in which an election is held. While the spending limit remains the same for all candidates regardless of when they file, their respective campaign periods will vary based on the date they file. This model would not work for spending limits on third-parties and would likely not survive a court challenge.

In Montreal, there is a distinct two month campaign period. Third parties are prohibited from spending funds during that period in Montreal and in all local elections across Quebec.

The committee will need to address the length and timing of a campaign period in setting limits. Unlike a federal or provincial election where nominations close during the campaign period itself that is not the case today for local elections in B.C.

IntegrityBC would recommend a distinct campaign period of at least 45 days from the day of the election for all candidates. This would require a change in the date that nominations close.

 

The other side of electoral finance reform: contributions

 

In 2011, the single largest donation in B.C. to a local candidate or party was $960,000. In 2014, it was $360,000. Both of the donations were to the Vancouver NPA.

Contrast the size of those donations with the limits in the cities referred to in this submission: Calgary $5,000, Winnipeg $1,500, Toronto $2,500 for mayor and $750 for a council candidate, and Montreal $300. In Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg corporate and union donations are banned. Somehow democracy has survived in all of these cities.

The cap on individual contributions to political parties or candidates at the municipal level across Quebec is $300. In Quebec, a donor must also reside in the same city as the candidate to whom they are contributing. Candidates must also reside in the community they are seeking office.

Outside of the mayor’s race in Toronto, the cap on donations across Ontario for all other offices is $750.

In 2011, 83.7 per cent of the donations ($2.93 million) to successful candidates running in the communities of Metro Vancouver came from corporations and unions. In Port Coquitlam, the seven successful candidates for council in 2011 raised $71,600 between them. $1,200 of it – or 1.7 per cent – came from people who actually resided in Port Coquitlam and all $1,200 of it was raised by Greg Moore.

In 2011, Shari Green spent $81,147 to win the mayor’s chair in Prince George. Seventeen per cent of her total campaign spending was covered by donations from the Treasure Cove Casino and its owner.

While this committee will not be considering this subject in its work, IntegrityBC again urges the government to address the issue of electoral finance reform in all legislation governing elections and referendums in B.C. Public confidence demands it.

 

Conclusion

 

Had sufficient time been provided to the committee for this phase, IntegrityBC’s submission might have included specific recommendations on dollar amounts for spending limits. However, the data in the discussion paper is either faulty or insufficient to do so.

And the decision to proceed with this phase – three months before financial disclosure reports are filed with Elections B.C. – is ill-advised.

The committee won’t have the benefit of Adriane Carr’s financial disclosure report for the recent Vancouver election before it makes its recommendations. Ms. Carr topped the polls for council in Vancouver. Nor will the committee have the benefit of the disclosure reports for the candidates running for municipal elector organizations in Surrey and Burnaby that might have provided some balance to the reports that will be filed by Vision Vancouver and the NPA.

It’s also regrettable that the government has gone from a “green light” to the Task Force’s recommendations in 2010 to a snail’s pace in their implementation.

Without comprehensive electoral finance reform, setting spending limits may simply result in one or two deep-pocketed donors cutting cheques to cover an entire campaign budget.

This year Peter Armstrong and his companies donated at least $470,000 to the NPA. That’s enough to have covered Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s 2013 re-election budget with $79,000 to spare. Calgary has a quarter of a million more voters than Vancouver. It would have covered the spending limit of two candidates running for mayor of Winnipeg with $67,000 left over. Winnipeg is on par with Vancouver in terms of the number of eligible voters.

Not only will local democracy survive meaningful electoral finance reform in B.C., it will flourish.

But new issues have emerged since 2010 that the legislature should address and old issues that should be revisited.

Should larger cities in B.C. be divided into wards for future local elections? Charlottetown, PEI has wards. Halifax has them. St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador too. Saint John, New Brunswick? Yeap. Sherbrooke, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Brandon, Regina, and Calgary too. British Columbia doesn’t.

Only three provinces hold elections on the weekend: Nova Scotia, Quebec and British Columbia. All three have some of the lowest voter turnouts in the country.

Only two provinces allow you to run for public office at the local level in a community where you don’t reside: Manitoba and British Columbia. Half of Manitoba’s population lives in one city. Only 13.1 per cent of B.C.’s population live in Vancouver.

In the November civic election, one candidate ran for mayor in all 13 communities of the Capital Regional District. It’s permissible to do that under the Act.

Most provinces restrict and set donation limits at both the local and provincial levels. B.C. doesn’t. At either level.

We would also be remiss if we did not point out the challenges that many candidates faced in November’s elections gaining access to apartment buildings and condominiums. This matter is dealt with in Canada’s Election Act. B.C. should follow suit.

Sometimes standing out from the crowd is a good thing, but when you’re the odd man out on so many critical issues to the most fundamental laws of a democracy that’s not such a good thing.

Oh, a candidate can’t tweet “vote” on election day? In 2014? Please.