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British Columbia B.C. closes ‘loophole’ in municipal campaign finance laws

The B.C. government has closed what it calls a “loophole” in its recent overhaul of municipal campaign finance laws to make it clear that a ban on union and corporate donations applies to political parties regardless of how they intend to use the money.

Under the campaign finance law passed last October, aimed at ending what many felt was no-holds-barred fundraising that saw millions of dollars poured into municipal elections, corporate and union donations were prohibited for campaign expenses, but not for the general operations of a party. The law also banned individual donations over $1,200 to any party or candidate during the election period.

The exception came to light when The Globe and Mail reported earlier this month that one of Vancouver’s main political parties, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), was planning to raise money from corporate sources including developers and donors giving more than $1,200.

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“This change will ensure that we have a level playing field for candidates by keeping big money out of local elections,” said Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson.

Operation costs can be significant. In the past, the dominant Vision Vancouver has raised and spent as much as $1-million a year on party operating expenses.

But a range of critics say that was just one flaw in rushed legislation and they worry about other problems arising from undefined areas that remain.

“This legislation was clearly not ready for prime time,” said Vancouver Councillor George Affleck, who is with the NPA, the party that was planning to raise money in the once-traditional way. “Given we are five months out of an election, the people in communities across B.C. are losing faith that this legislation is dealing with the reform we ALL asked for. It is neither transparent, effective nor potentially fair.”

Mr. Affleck also blasted the minister for singling out the NPA and saying it was taking advantage of a loophole.

He noted it is not a loophole, as Ms. Robinson referred to it several times.

Elections BC officials had advised both reporters and political candidates several times in recent weeks that the law made it legal to accept the kinds of donations for operating expenses that were going to be banned for campaign expenses.

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“She should be politically agnostic on the file,” Mr. Affleck said. “Clearly she is not, and the premier should see this as a breach of duties and have her resign.”

Mr. Affleck, as well as former Green Party candidate for council Pete Fry, also raised concerns about the looseness of the law’s details when it comes to third-party fundraising – that is, money raised and spent by businesses, individuals, or interest groups to push a particular party or candidate or opinion on an election issue.

“It appears the legislation puts no restriction on third-party organizations and the funds they can raise to promote parties and candidates,” Mr. Affleck said.

In fact, the legislation does limit the amount a third party can spend in the province overall during the election period (it’s $150,000) and limits how much it can spend in each of the almost 200 cities during the election period, based on the city’s size.

But it doesn’t limit contributions from individuals to the third parties and, as with the rest of the law, it doesn’t limit spending in non-election years.

While Mr. Fry said Friday’s amendment was a good first step, it didn’t go far enough.

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He said parties and sitting politicians or potential candidates can still do whatever they want in the three non-election years of each cycle.

“That means that in non-election years there is absolutely no mandate to disclose who is giving how much money to local political parties and whether they are union or corporate contributions,” he said.

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