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Amid a cash-for-access clampdown, the BC Liberals are laughing

It is difficult to peruse the list of donors to British Columbia's governing Liberal Party for 2016 and not feel creeping concern.

Numbered companies handing over tens of thousands of dollars; 33 separate contributions from a prominent casino operator; individuals pulling as much as $200,000 each out of their pockets to throw in the Liberal kitty; developers, real estate companies, oil and gas – all doing their bit to ensure the Liberals have a formidable electoral advantage over their opponents.

They're all in there, forking out millions, collectively, because in British Columbia, that's the cost of doing business.

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Yes, it's every bit as deplorable and unseemly as it appears.

The New York Times is the latest to take note of the campaign finance free-for-all taking place in the province, publishing a story on the weekend that marvelled at the fact Premier Christy Clark draws a salary from the fundraising dollars she collects, which, of course, is on top of the one she receives as the head of government.

Can you say banana republic?

Since 2011, that extra salary has amounted to nearly $280,000. The past two years, it has been $50,000 annually. The party did not respond Monday to a request for information on how much her party salary will be this year. (The Liberals prefer to call it a stipend, which is an insult to the thousands of British Columbians who call $50,000 their total family income).

The Times piece, based mostly on reporting that has been done by other media organizations in B.C. over the past year, noted just how unusual Ms. Clark's compensation package is. Only one other Canadian Premier, Brad Wall, gets money from his party on top of his taxpayer-paid salary.

Other provinces have outlawed the practice over ethical concerns. In British Columbia, there are no such worries.

Example: The son of the province's Conflict of Interest Commissioner is a good friend of the Premier and a deputy in her government. This unusual situation is at the heart of a court application launched by Democracy Watch, a national civic-affairs organization based in Ottawa.

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The group contends that there was a "reasonable apprehension of bias" in the Commissioner's earlier rulings clearing Ms. Clark in a conflict complaint stemming from her party salary. Democracy Watch asserts that because of his son's relationship with the Premier, the Commissioner should not have handled this case.

While that is certainly a valid point, I don't think the Conflict Commissioner's ruling was necessarily wrong; the conflict laws in British Columbia are so lame, so toothless, that virtually anything goes. There is nothing in the province's laws prohibiting the Premier from deriving an income from the fundraising dinners she attends, even intimate ones at which people pay $10,000 or more each for a chance to have private time with the province's most powerful person.

To many on the outside that seems preposterous. In B.C., it's known as the rules of engagement.

And Ms. Clark and her party are gambling that most British Columbians don't give a whit about this. They are betting most of the citizenry are more concerned about their jobs, and which party is best able to protect them. The Liberals are not prepared to abandon a practice that gives them a massive (and unfair) electoral advantage.

Corporate B.C., in particular, is prepared to dig deep to keep the Liberals in power. In return, all it expects is the government to remain decidedly pro-business, with all that entails. So in 2016, of the $12.5-million the party took in, nearly $8-million of it was from businesses and corporations. The NDP will take in a fraction of that.

While the rest of the country moved long ago to change campaign finance laws to create more of a level playing field, and while many provinces – including most recently Ontario – have banned cash-for-access dinners because of the horrible optics they create, in B.C., the Liberals try to stifle their laughter at how stupid these other governments are.

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Why would any party give up a huge electoral advantage like the one the Liberals in B.C. have when people don't care about it anyway?

The Liberals figure they can focus on other issues to demonstrate their concern for the average citizen, like, say, bringing in first-time homeowner loans. Those are the direct-appeal policies that keep people from having their attention diverted to the outcry in some quarters over the morally distasteful way the BC Liberals chose to operate.

When I asked a prominent Liberal backroomer on Monday what the reaction was to the Times piece, he said: "People in the party just laughed. They know that no one in this province cares about fundraising. So it's a non-issue."

And they are likely to keep laughing right through the next election.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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