A baby step, but not the great leap forward that British Columbia needs.
That is the early verdict from Democracy Watch on the BC Liberals’ 11th hour, dead on arrival bill to ban big money from politics.
The NDP and Green alliance voted 44-42 to reject the corporate and union donation ban as soon as it was tabled in the Legislature on June 26 — the 5,866th day of BC Liberal rule. The opposition parties, who won more seats and more votes combined than the BC Liberals in the May 9 election, won’t consider any government bills because they want to topple Premier Christy Clark’s administration in a non-confidence vote expected June 29.
Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said the proposed law would not have solved political influence-buying by corporations and unions, because the $2,500 annual maximum donation to a party and $2,500 annual maximum for a constituency association are too high. Corporations and unions would have found creative ways to funnel donations to parties and politicians, he said.
“Such a high limit for donations from individuals will obscure, not stop, the influence of big money in B.C. politics, as it will be easy for any business to have, for example, 10 executives and their spouses each give the maximum, which will add up to a $100,000 donation,” Conacher said. “The media and the public will have difficulty tracing those donations back to the business, especially if the executives have common names or their spouses have different last names or are not publicly known.”
That is exactly what happened in Quebec. In 2013, the Charbonneau Commission inquiry into that province’s corruption-riddled construction industry heard about SNC-Lavalin’s political donation slush fund. Around $1 million of company money was funnelled through senior staff and their spouses into the pockets of the Parti Quebecois, Liberals and Union Montreal.
Conacher said donations of money, goods and services should be capped at $100 to $200 each party (Quebec’s limit is now $100). The same limit, he said, should apply to candidates donating to their own campaigns, with donations being routed through Elections BC.
“This is a democratic amount because it is an amount an average voter can afford,” Conacher said.
If parties cry poverty and argue for bigger budgets to operate, then they should get annual subsidies of $1 per vote, based on the results of the last election, Conacher said. There should also be public funding to match the first $500,000 raised by a party each year, public funding to match $25,000 raised per nomination race and $100,000 for each party leadership candidate. B.C. taxpayers already indirectly support political parties because donors are eligible for tax credits.
Conacher was disappointed that the Liberal bill failed to require detailed disclosure of all donations and gifts of money, goods and services and volunteer labour. Such disclosure should include the identity of the donor’s employer, any board and executive affiliations, and the disclosure of anyone who assists with any fundraising or fundraising event.
Conacher said effective campaign finance laws also need annual random audits by election, donation and ethics watchdogs and Elections BC and the Auditor General should be empowered to review and reject or order changes to partisan or misleading government advertising. Such a law should also be punctuated with stiff fines of $100,000 and up, plus jail sentences.
NDP leader John Horgan has pledged to immediately reform campaign finance laws if his alliance with Green leader Andrew Weaver forms government. For years, the BC Liberals resisted calls to limit the size and source of donations and voted down six NDP bills to ban corporate and union donations. The BC Liberals changed their hardline stance June 22 with a throne speech that copied heavily from the NDP and Green platforms they recently ran against.
The RCMP and a special prosecutor are investigating illegal donations made by lobbyists to the BC Liberals.
Between January 2016 and May 2017, the BC Liberals grossed $21.3 million in donations. The party was holding private, unadvertised fundraising parties where donors met face-to-face with Clark, who was paid a $50,000-a-year bonus. Last week, the NDP held a $350-a-plate dinner at the posh Hotel Vancouver which was crashed by anti-poverty activists.
Earlier this year, theBreaker reported that Clark and Deputy Premier Rich Coleman were guests at a private February 2016 fundraiser that resulted in $1.65 million in donations. Companies related to Wall Financial donated $400,000 the same week those companies sold Chinatown land to BC Housing for $6.7 million.