The B.C. Liberal government has opened the door to limits on political donations for the first time, promising to establish an independent panel to shape reform of what has been described as the "wild west" of campaign finance in Canada.
But Premier Christy Clark ruled out in advance any model that would require public subsidies.
The Premier said she plans to set up a non-partisan panel that would make non-binding recommendations to the legislature on campaign-finance reform.
With the legislative session winding down this week ahead of a provincial election campaign, any change is unlikely to come until after B.C. residents have voted at the polls on May 9.
"It's a legitimate subject for debate in the election campaign," Ms. Clark said on Monday, when asked why she waited until just weeks before an election to promise change.
The announcement came days after a Globe and Mail investigation into campaign fundraising in British Columbia sparked an RCMP probe.
The governing BC Liberals have faced questions over the past year about fundraising tactics that pulled in more than $12-million for the party in 2016, including private cash-for-access dinners with the Premier worth $10,000 a plate.
Until now, Ms. Clark said the answer to those concerns was to strengthen disclosure rules, and her government tabled a bill on Monday that would require more frequent and detailed reporting of political donations.
But she also acknowledged the public wants more: "We can't say that just transparency will solve all of the problems, because we know that's not enough."
The BC Liberals, the NDP, the BC Greens and independent MLA Vicki Huntington have each drafted proposed legislation to enact campaign-finance reform. But politicians have too much of a vested interest to judge which features are best, Ms. Clark said.
"Voters will say they would like to have it outside the hands of politicians, and all the bills before the legislature represent the views of political parties that have a vital interest in the way this will turn out," she said.
The Premier has tasked a senior bureaucrat, deputy attorney-general Richard Fyfe, to establish the campaign-finance panel. "What I'm proposing today is a process that would take political parties and politicians out of the process of deciding what it should look like," she said.
Scrutiny of the province's lax fundraising rules has increased in the past week since The Globe's investigation found the BC Liberals collected tens of thousands of dollars in multiple donations from lobbyists who paid under their own names on behalf of clients and companies and were later reimbursed. Indirect political contributions are prohibited, and the province's elections agency referred the matter to the RCMP.
In addition to the cash-for-access fundraisers, Ms. Clark also faced criticism during the past year over a $50,000 annual stipend she received from her party. She announced earlier this year that she would no longer collect the payment.
Opposition MLAs quickly united in denouncing Monday's announcement.
"Isn't it a masterful piece of deflection?" said Ms. Huntington, whose proposed bill would cap individual donations, ban union and corporate donations, and add a residency requirement for donors. She said the opposition may feel trapped into supporting the Premier's reform measures, but "legislation would do same thing better and faster."
The Opposition NDP has voluntarily returned two donations as a result of an internal review of recent fundraising efforts. Although the party has called for an end to corporate and union donations, the New Democrats are still accepting what they call "big money" to prepare for the coming election campaign.
NDP Leader John Horgan said Ms. Clark has made no real commitment to change because the panel's findings would be non-binding. He said legislation is a better approach. "As luck would have it, I have a private members' bill on the order paper that contains that very thing. The Premier should get on board, we could pass it today."
Mr. Horgan did not rule out supporting the government's plan, but said the timing is poor. "It's always after the election. She's had six years to do this, and here we are, weeks from the election, and the Premier has had a death-bed conversion."
B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver flatly rejected Ms. Clark's measure. "The BC Liberals are just kicking the can down the road," he said. "We know what the problem is, the problem is influence-peddling through corporate donations and this culture of pay-for-access. … And if you want to deal with that, you deal with it as we have, by banning union and corporate donations to our party."
The panel would be modelled on the Electoral Boundaries Commission, which sets the borders for the province's political constituencies. Appointed members would require unanimous approval of the legislature. After its initial work, the panel would become a permanent body that monitors the province's campaign financing laws and recommends updates every eight years, the Premier said.
Ms. Clark said she would not give the panel free rein, and would not endorse any model that involved shifting away from a purely voluntary system of donations to one that uses tax dollars to subsidize political parties.
"Most Canadians don't know that in the last federal election, about $100-million of people's taxes were diverted away from essential services to subsidize political parties," she said. "In terms of where we won't go if we were re-elected, that would be the only place. Anything else is on the table to be considered."