Problems that emerged with campaign money in B.C. civic elections, even after reforms in 2017, were so serious that the province’s association of municipalities is putting forward a special resolution asking for changes.
Rather than leaving it up to Vancouver – the city that had the most controversial kinds of campaign spending in the 2018 election – to ask the province to fix the issues, the executive of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) says in the preamble to its resolution it is acting for all cities “to seek a means to ensure fairness and transparency in the election financing process.”
The special resolution was welcomed by Vancouver Green Party Councillor Pete Fry, whose party, along with all other major ones in the city, has argued for reforms to campaign financing.
“It’s something that resonates everywhere. It’s not just a big-city problem,” Mr. Fry said.
The special resolution, which will go to the UBCM’s annual convention being held virtually in late September, asks the province to change the current laws to require civic political parties to register and provide records of their donations year-round, instead of just the two months before an election.
As well, the union recommends that the province make all candidates file reports about election contributions as they get them during the campaign period, with sitting councillors or mayors required to report any contributions throughout the time they are in office. Currently, candidates can report their donations three months after an election, and only for the designated campaign period.
It would also like the province to establish a precampaign period during which all election advertising – including that of interest groups – must include sponsorship information.
The changes are meant to address some of the issues that popped up after the province changed campaign-finance laws for local elections to limit donations to $1,200 a candidate per donor and to ban corporate and union donations.
That came after several elections in which spending by each of the major civic parties in Vancouver – Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association – rose from $500,000 in the 1990s, to $1-million in the early 2000s, to more than $2-million in 2014. This raised concerns that large donors, particularly developers and unions, were influencing the outcome.
But in the 2018 campaign, interest groups spent money themselves rather than giving it to candidates. And cities such as Vancouver and Surrey saw heavy spending by third-party organizations outside the designated 28-day period leading up to the Oct. 20 election.
Although third parties were limited in the amount they could spend within the 28 days, there was no requirement to register or limit spending prior to that.
Flyers and videos attacking Surrey mayoral candidate Tom Gill were circulated widely in the precampaign period in 2018, while in Vancouver, billboards promoting one mayoral candidate and Facebook sites attacking others were exempt from any requirements for third-party reporting.
The Globe and Mail reported during the campaign that developer Peter Wall paid $85,000 for billboards promoting candidate Hector Bremner in the precampaign period.
The union’s recommendations regarding campaign contributions are aimed at concerns that larger civic political parties like those in Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby have permanent organizations that can collect political donations all the time, not just in campaigns. They’re not required to report any of those donations in non-election years.
UBCM president Maja Tait, the mayor of Sooke, said the executive decided to make it a priority resolution because now is the time to ask for reforms.
“There were so many changes introduced for the last election, and one of the commitments from the provincial government was that they would look at any changes that still needed to be made,” Ms. Tait said.
She said she hopes that, if the resolution is passed, the province will act quickly so that everyone knows the new rules at least a year before the election in October, 2022.
One recommendation from Vancouver that didn’t get included in the resolution is the idea of giving tax credits for donations to municipal-election campaigns, as there are for provincial and federal elections.
That would help candidates and parties in smaller cities, Surrey Councillor Brenda Locke said.
“It’s hard to ask people for $1,200 when we can’t give a [tax] receipt.”
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