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British Columbia’s New Democrats say they will move quickly once in government to ban all corporate and union donations.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's New Democrats say they will move quickly once in government to ban all corporate and union donations – including in-kind contributions that fuelled controversy during the recent election campaign because senior campaign staff were being paid by a union.

BC NDP director Raj Sihota said such legislation will be passed soon after her party forms government and recalls the legislature, which is expected to happen in September.

"For too long, the BC Liberals worked only for the wealthy and well-connected. John Horgan will ensure B.C.'s government works for regular British Columbians again," Ms. Sihota said in an e-mailed statement. "One of our first acts will be to ban direct and in-kind political contributions from unions and corporations and put people back at the centre of our politics."

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The New Democrats are preparing for that transition after reaching a deal with the third-place Greens. The two parties voted down the Liberal government last week.

During the recent election campaign, the New Democrats were criticized by the Liberals and Greens for allowing the United Steelworkers union to pay for the salaries of deputy party director Glen Sanford, campaign director Bob Dewar and long-time NDP campaign organizer Gerry Scott. Rather than donate cash, the Steelworkers put members on the union's payroll and lent them to the NDP.

At the time, Green Leader Andrew Weaver questioned how NDP Leader John Horgan could campaign against big money corrupting politicians, when he then "quietly goes into a backroom and strikes a deal with a union to have them pay for his senior staff?"

On Tuesday, Mr. Weaver's spokesperson said if a ban on such in-kind donations is not included in the NDP's campaign finance bill, his caucus will work with the Liberals to introduce an amendment doing so.

Mr. Sanford, now the NDP's volunteer vice-president, said there is little difference between cash and in-kind donations, such as his labour, provided they are given at full market value.

"I don't particularly see a problem with that per se; where the problem lies is big money's influence in politics – and we said we are going to ban it," he said in an interview on Tuesday.

A Liberal Party spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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Campaign-finance reform will be among the first issues facing the new NDP government. The New Democrats have already faced criticism since the election for holding a private, $325-a-ticket fundraising event and for continuing to accept union and corporate donations while waiting to take office.

The outgoing BC Liberals had long refused to implement any limits on political donations despite repeated criticism of the party's fundraising practices, including cash-for-access events in which donors paid up to $10,000 for a chance to sit down with the Premier. Earlier this year, the Liberals relented somewhat and pledged to form a panel after the election that would review overhauling campaign finance rules.

The Liberals finally reversed course last month when the government presented its final Throne Speech as the party faced imminent defeat at the hands of the NDP-Green alliance.

In that Throne Speech, the Liberals also said they wanted to outlaw in-kind donations, despite enjoying a clear advantage last year by raising almost $640,000 versus the NDP's $41,000, according to annual reports filed to Elections BC. It is unknown how much was donated through these in-kind contributions during the campaign as all parties must submit their reports to Elections BC by Aug. 8.

The Greens say they have not accepted in-kind donations from businesses or unions since last September and received about $1,300 in these contributions from individuals during the election.

The Liberals raised $13.1-million in donations last year, while the NDP raised $6.2-million. Nearly two-thirds of the money raised by the Liberals – $7.7-million – came from a relatively small collection of corporate and business donors. Of the money donated to the NDP, $1.8-million was from unions.

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The Greens and the NDP have agreed to work together on key issues, including campaign finance, electoral reform and the environment.

Dermod Travis, executive director of IntegrityBC, a non-partisan government critic, said these in-kind donations deserve to be banned outright as they are often too complicated to provide an accurate appraisal of the services or items provided.

"Without wanting to point to specifics, I've seen cases in party financial reports that caused me to scratch my head at how they got valued at what was that price," he said.

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