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gary mason

A majority of Canadians believe there is no place in politics for big money, and take an even dimmer view of governing parties paying their leaders salaries beyond what they make as elected officials.

Those are some of the key findings in a new nationwide poll by Angus Reid Institute, which recently took the country's pulse on an issue that has been making headlines in British Columbia and Ontario in particular.

More than 60 per cent of people who were asked said they would like corporate and union donations to political parties banned, while only one in 10 felt they should be allowed. (Less than 30 per cent were not sure.) However, a breakdown of the results by province shows British Columbians felt strongest about the issue, with 71 per cent saying they would like the practice stopped.

Participants were more adamant about political leaders getting their salaries topped up by their parties. In British Columbia, The Globe and Mail recently revealed that Premier Christy Clark has been receiving an annual income from the B.C. Liberal Party that has amounted to nearly $300,000 since she took over as leader in 2011.

While she has revealed a "leader's allowance" on her annual disclosure statement filed with the conflict commissioner's office, the amount had not been divulged until recently.

In its poll, the Angus Reid Institute found that 81 per cent of respondents across the country agreed with the statement that political parties should not give their leaders salaries over and above what they get as elected officials. In British Columbia, where the controversy over this matter has been centred for the past couple of weeks, support for that view was even higher, at 86 per cent.

In Saskatchewan, where Premier Brad Wall also gets a party top-up, 73 per cent of poll respondents thought the practice should end. Mr. Wall, who received $37,000 from the Saskatchewan Party last year, and Ms. Clark are the only two provincial premiers to get an extra salary from their parties.

Interestingly, 62 per cent of British Columbians rated the salary top-up issue "very important" compared with just 31 per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and 47 per cent nationally. When asked to rate how significant the issue of union and corporate donations was against other policy issues in Canada, 54 per cent of respondents nationally judged it to be "very important." In British Columbia, that figure jumped to 65 per cent, while in Ontario, where the issue has been simmering and where Premier Kathleen Wynne has pledged to end the practice, 56 per cent considered it "very important."

(The online survey of 1,510 adults was conducted May 2-3. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20.)

So, given the numbers, should Premier Christy Clark be worried that her adamant refusal to ban union and corporate donations or give up her extra Liberal Party salary will hurt her with voters? Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, is not so sure.

"In B.C., where there is the greatest awareness of this issue, I'd say it's one that is simmering with the public, but the question is: Does it build into something more substantial or cool off?" Ms. Kurl said in an interview.

"I'm not sure it's one of the top issues dominating public opinion in everyday life. If you put it up against real estate, housing affordability or energy policy, I think you'll see people much more riled up about those types of things."

Which could well be what Ms. Clark is banking on. In an ideal world, people would love to see big money taken out of politics. But is it as important an issue as owning a house? Or finding a job? Likely not. Could it be something the NDP could still exploit, however? The poll numbers suggest it is.

"Clearly, there is a public distaste for what is taking place, especially in British Columbia. And that opposition would include a bucket of people who voted for Christy Clark and the Liberals last time around. I think this is an issue the Liberals are going to closely monitor," Ms. Kurl said.

"If it shows that it's sticking with voters and could hurt the party, it's not very expensive to make one of the issues, the salary top-up, go away. It would cost Premier Clark $50,000 a year, which isn't much in the grand scheme of things."

These survey results certainly are not ones that will make the B.C. Liberals thrilled. But then again, the party has pushed onward in the face of bad polling numbers before and it all worked out fine. They are betting it can happen again.