Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
Even with new campaign-finance laws in place, there was no easy way to find out who paid for the huge billboards endorsing Vancouver mayoral candidate Hector Bremner. They popped up around town before the beginning of the official one-month 2018 civic election campaign period when disclosure requirements kick in.
It was easy to guess a developer had shelled out for the $85,000 ad buy, given Mr. Bremner’s promise to solve Vancouver’s affordable housing woes with higher density and an unfettered increase in housing development. But it took a Globe investigation to confirm the deep-pocketed benefactor was, indeed, developer Peter Wall.
Now a city task force has proposed a handful of changes to close loopholes in the provincial legislation, which was designed to lessen the influence of big money in local politics. Although the new law largely accomplished what it set out to do, there were problems, some of which the task force has identified and recommended fixing. But it could have gone even further.
Among the task force recommendations is to require donations to be reported before – not after – elections and extend the campaign period to just after Labour Day, lengthening the reporting period from four to seven weeks. This would certainly help.
Civic elections in B.C. are held every four years on the third Saturday of October. No one pays much attention to campaigns until September, after the summer vacation season. Before then, it is unlikely a third-party advertiser would want to throw money away on ads many people would neither see nor hear.
But if changes are to be made, why not require year-round disclosure for donations to political parties, candidates and third-party influencers?
Although B.C. civic parties and candidates have traditionally done most fundraising during election years, there have been notable exceptions. Vision Vancouver, which held power in Vancouver for 10 years until 2018, was a well-oiled political machine and raised money non-stop.
Donations outside the campaign period did not then and still do not have to be reported. Ditto for the annual mayor’s fundraising golf tournament put on by Surrey First, the party that dominated Surrey politics for a decade until 2018. If the spirit of the legislation is transparency, there is no reason for entire years to be opaque.
The task force pointed to other areas that need tightening as well. Given that union and corporate donations are disallowed, unions and business groups should not be able to use their own funds for campaigning purposes. Nor should they be able to lend paid staff members to electioneer and knock on doors for preferred candidates. Some of this benefited Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart and other members of a slate endorsed by the Vancouver and District Labour Council in 2018.
If it were up to Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a group that monitors campaign-financing issues, individual donations would be further restricted as well. In Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa, donors are only allowed to give to candidates for whom they can vote. Contrast that to B.C. where, for example, in 2018, developer Ryan Beedie donated $25,000 to candidates in seven Lower Mainland municipalities, when he obviously lives and votes in only one.
Mr. Travis also recommends that donations to elector organizations be prorated to the number of candidates they run, to prevent the Vancouver situation where three parties worked together and were allowed to accept $1,200 each from the same donor versus the Non-Partisan Association, which ran a full slate and was limited to one.
These loopholes can be fixed with a few tweaks by the provincial government and let’s hope it acts on this quickly. Because before the new law was passed, municipal politics was headed in the wrong direction.
In 2014, municipal election donations in Vancouver totalled $5.73-million, and the top individual donation was a whopping $300,000. With $1,200 limits in place, total donations in Vancouver fell almost by half to $2.75-million in 2018, proof that for the most part, the law is working.
If we’re going to bother to make changes, it makes sense to go all the way to get things just right. Mr. Travis has some good ideas and the province would do well to listen.
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