British Columbia's three main political parties received a $2.4-million gift from taxpayers this month – the first payout of the provincial per-vote subsidy that was rolled into the NDP government's recent ban on union and corporate donations.
In January, the NDP collected $994,000 and the Greens got $415,000 under the subsidy formula that provides $2.50 per vote received in the 2017 election.
And while the opposition Liberals say they oppose the taxpayer-funded subsidy, the party still accepted the largest payout – $996,000 – made by direct deposit from the Chief Electoral Officer on Jan. 2.
"It's a money grab on a scale which is neither casual nor minor," Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan told the House last fall, when the NDP legislation that created the subsidy was unveiled.
"It's my belief that individuals should be able to choose whether or not to financially support political parties," said Liberal MLA Jane Thornthwaite during debates. "Political parties should either live or die by the support they are able to generate in the political marketplace," added Liberal MLA Laurie Throness.
But now, in the final days of the Liberal leadership race, one contender is proposing to use the next payment – almost one million dollars due in July – to pay for a party campaign in a referendum on electoral reform this fall.
Andrew Wilkinson said he would like the Liberal Party's 60,000 members to be asked if they want to continue taking the subsidy, and if so, to use the July payout to wage a battle against changing the province's electoral system.
"We need to ask the members about this subsidy and see what they want to do," he said in an interview Wednesday. "We're asking them to take the per-vote subsidy, or raise the equivalent. They should have a say in that."
The Liberal leadership vote will be held on Feb. 3. Mr. Wilkinson says that if he wins, he will ask the party to canvass members at individual riding association meetings about their wishes.
Both the NDP and the Greens are supporting electoral reform, while the Liberals want to keep the first-past-the-post system.
B.C.'s voters will be asked, via a mail-in ballot, if they want the next provincial election to be decided by some form of proportional representation – a voting system where the number of seats each party gets in the legislature is based on their percentage of the popular vote. The details of the referendum have not been announced. The vote will be held by the end of November.
Mr. Wilkinson argued in a statement that he opposes the referendum, suggesting the process has been "rigged" behind closed doors and without consultation with British Columbians. He noted he would fight for the current system because it has enabled "stable democracy" for 150 years.
In a statement, Attorney-General David Eby said there are currently no rules that would prevent the Liberals from using their taxpayer-funded subsidy to pay for a referendum campaign.
The minority NDP government, with the support of the Greens, changed the Elections Act to end a system that earned the province the reputation of Canada's Wild West of political fundraising, where parties have long relied on big-money donations with virtually no limits. In its place, the government introduced the per-vote subsidy, with a five-year formula set to pay out a diminishing rate.
Green MLA Sonia Fursteneau said Wednesday that the Liberals, since they are taking the money, have accepted the change to campaign finance rules. "If they are already talking about how they are going to spend it, we seem to have moved on."
She defended the new campaign funding system, which gives the three-member Green caucus a significant cash boost.
"At least with this very small subsidy, people can feel somewhat empowered to vote how they want to," she said.
The Greens insisted on giving voters the opportunity to change the electoral system as part of their agreement to support the minority NDP government, and with the Liberals opposing change, it provides a clear dividing line for the parties.
Ms. Fursteneau said she is not surprised the Liberals, who were in government for 16 years before last year's election, oppose changes to the voting system. "They recognize this [the old] system has served their party very well, because it is a system of entrenched interests that allowed them to hold power, as they did for so long."