Dermod Travis: Making the case for electoral finance reform in B.C.

By Dermod Travis, November 21, 2011

Catching a politician with their hand in the cookie jar is far more juicy than actually building a better cookie jar, so it’s little surprise that proposing changes to B.C.’s electoral finance laws is hardly seen as sexy.

But if voters truly want accountability and transparency restored to B.C. politics, it starts with prying the fingers of B.C. politicians off the wallets of large corporate and union donors, whether it’s at the local or provincial level.

It may shock some, but in 2009 the B.C. Liberals outspent the record-setting spending of the 2008 Obama campaign on a per registered voter basis. While the comparison is admittedly a little cute, consider that over the last 10 years the B.C. Liberals out-raised the NDP two-to-one or $76.7 million to $38.4 million.

Numbers which confirm one truism about politics: money wins elections.

According to a post-election analysis by the U.S.-based Center for Responsive Politics, over 90 percent of U.S. House and Senate races (decided by November 5, 2008) were won by the candidate who had spent the most money. The same holds true for the last three B.C. elections.

And if even more proof was needed that the laws governing the financing of B.C. political parties are out of whack consider the recent $500-a-ticket fundraising reception headlined by Premier Christy Clark at the Calgary Petroleum Club.

The B.C. Liberals not only sought, but the premier lent her name, presence, and office to an event soliciting donations from individuals who are likely ineligible to vote in B.C.

Imagine the outcry on Howe Street if a future premier Adrian Dix attended a similar dinner with members of the Canadian Labour Congress in Windsor, Ontario?

Just a glance at the B.C. Election Act should make it abundantly clear why more and more citizens distrust B.C.’s political system.

There are no real rules when it comes to political financing in B.C.: no dollar limits, no geographic limits. Corporations and unions can donate as much as they want, even if they don’t do business in B.C.

And while banning these donations is a start, without additional reforms even this would be insufficient to clean-up B.C. politics. A ban on corporate and union donations—without an accompanying cap on personal donations—will prove little more than a street hustler’s three shell game.

Simply put: the rules regarding how parties and candidates are financed in B.C. needs an overhaul, not a lube job.

Only through comprehensive reforms can B.C. voters truly have confidence that the decisions made in Victoria and at city hall are free of questionable corporate, union, or outside influence.

Shamefully, B.C. is a laggard when it comes to electoral finance reform. Seven out of ten provinces have implemented a variety of measures intended to clean up the political system in their respective provinces.

So is it any wonder that voters are left shaking their heads asking: who really runs B.C.?

Over the past weeks, voters across the province witnessed the unseemly sight of large-scale developers underwriting the campaigns of local candidates running in municipal elections. Following Saturday’s vote many of those candidates now hold office.

In 2010, the largest single donor to the B.C. Liberal Party was Great Pacific Capital Corporation (read Jimmy Pattison) at $208,000. For the NDP it was $157,770 from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. No other political party in Canada came close to hauling in donations of that size.

And no matter their protests to the contrary, there are strings attached to this largesse.

As U.S. representative Barney Frank once noted: “politics is the only profession where you are required to take money from strangers and pretend that you don’t owe them anything.”

But the devil to meaningful electoral finance reform will be in the detail. Trade-offs will need to be made. Would a cap on individual donations differ if there were public allowances for political parties or should public funds be used to reimburse the election expenses of candidates are just two of those issues.

Yet, one fact is as bright as day: those who must play by the rules shouldn’t be the people who can also gain a political advantage by setting the rules.

Whether it’s a citizens’ assembly or some other independent body the B.C. government must show the political courage to delegate the responsibility for overhauling B.C.’s antiquated electoral finance laws to someone other than themselves.

Such an approach is the best way to unite British Columbians behind some of the more divisive questions surrounding these issues.

Ultimately though the choice for B.C. is clear: a system where companies and unions are left to believe that you have to pay to play or a system that is answerable solely to B.C. voters.