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Premier Christy Clark answers questions from the media during a press conference from her office at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., Monday, March 13, 2017. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Premier Christy Clark answers questions from the media during a press conference from her office at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., Monday, March 13, 2017. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

There’s nothing binding about Christy Clark’s donations panel Add to ...

For a government that is all about politics, all of the time, the mounting criticism the BC Liberals were facing over the absence of any substantive rules around campaign financing became a threat to the one thing they value above all else: power.

There is no other explanation for Premier Christy Clark’s sudden reversal on the matter, announcing on Monday that an independent panel will be asked to make recommendations on reforming current laws – and we use the term laws loosely – governing political donations in the province.

This, after months and months of stubbornly refusing to admit there was a problem, of insisting this was a media-contrived issue that the broader public didn’t care about. Something changed.

Public polling released recently showed the Premier was wrong about how British Columbians felt about ending the political-funding free-for-all that exists in the province. In fact, the vast majority of those surveyed said the government should ban union and corporate donations and set firm limits on individual donations – just like most other jurisdictions in the country do. And I suspect the Liberals’ own internal polling began showing the same thing.

With an election looming, Ms. Clark likely felt she had no choice but to do something.

I suppose the gracious thing would be to acknowledge that it is at least a step in the right direction, a recognition that there may, in fact, be a problem that needs to be addressed. However, there is nothing binding about this panel the government is setting up; it could well produce a report that the Liberals, if re-elected, could end up ignoring.

After all, the Premier set up a showy, high-profile expert panel on climate change, and then chose to ignore its recommendations. So there is precedent.

The fact is, we would be far more impressed if Ms. Clark had announced on Monday that she had finally seen the light and was committing her government to ending union and corporate donations and placing firm limits on individual donations. That she was establishing a panel to solely make some suggestions on what those limits might be.

But the Premier’s reluctance to fully commit to change ahead of the election gives her critics a legitimate target. What she appears to be doing is simply kicking the can down the road, giving her an out during the election campaign when her opponents hammer her on the scandalous cash-for-access political environment that is allowed to not only exist in British Columbia, but thrive.

The panel the Premier has announced is a strategic move as much as anything. And it will not end the debate that simmers within the Liberal party, and among the Premier’s own advisers, about what should be done to quell the controversy around this issue.

Liberal hawks are urging the Premier to stick to her guns and not give in to the pundits and ugly publicity. It will all blow over in time, goes the thinking. This is the camp that fervently believes the public doesn’t care about this issue as much as some in the press, and that if the party ends up winning the election it will be proof of that.

It would seem to be a view Ms. Clark has held herself.

But there are others in the Premier’s inner circle who feel strongly that this issue is doing some real damage. And a recent Globe and Mail inquiry into the way lobbyists are allegedly abusing lax campaign donation disclosure requirements – a probe that has now been turned over to the RCMP – was likely the key development that allowed the doves’ voices to be heard.

It is unfortunate Ms. Clark has already set constraints on the yet-to-be-named panel’s work. She is insisting that whatever remedies that they come up with not include options that include taxpayer dollars being used to fund political parties – something that is done widely across the country.

Without this option, it likely means that if the panel recommends banning union and corporate donations, the limits it would place on individual donations would have to be quite high to fund a modern political party today.

This, of course, plays right into the Liberals’ wheelhouse.

We will see if the public buys this manoeuvre by the Liberals to quiet the storm around their troubling campaign donation ways. Or whether they can see right through a decision that ultimately binds the Liberals to absolutely nothing.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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