B.C.'s new campaign finance legislation ensures some of the most generous taxpayer support for political parties in Canada – money the NDP government describes as necessary for a smooth fundraising transition that could strip some of the parties of millions of dollars.
The changes, announced Monday, were a surprise component in the long-promised transformation of political fundraising in British Columbia. The New Democrats did not mention a publicly funded per-vote subsidy in repeated bills that it tabled in opposition nor during the spring election campaign. After the campaign, the BC NDP and BC Green Party united to vote against the governing BC Liberals in a confidence vote, leading to the NDP coming to power with continuing Green support.
In its first year, B.C.'s planned subsidy would be $2.50 a vote. Ontario's is $2.70 a vote. Quebec, which has had the longest history with public subsidies for politicians, pays out $0.25 for each registered voter, distributed based on the proportion of votes received.
A similar federal subsidy, introduced in 2004, began at $1.75 and declined to $0.51 in 2014 before it was cancelled in 2015.
On Tuesday, B.C. Premier John Horgan reacted to questioning about the surprise subsidy program by noting that it is an "appropriate" way to transition to the new system and he said it would be gone by the end of his government's mandate. In fact, the legislation says the subsidy would continue until at least 2022 (a year after the scheduled next election), when the legislature would consider whether it should be extended. A separate provision that would reimburse parties for election expenses does not have an expiration date.
"This is not public financing from now until the end of time, like they have in Quebec," Mr. Horgan told reporters in Victoria.
"We came into the election campaign singularly focused on getting big money out of politics," Mr. Horgan said. "Upon forming a government – admittedly a minority government – we did a review of other jurisdictions in Canada and we rejected pure public financing as is done in Ontario, as is done in Quebec, and instead put in a temporary transition fund that will disappear at the end of this Parliament."
The NDP was under fire over the issue in Question Period. "Why is [Mr. Horgan] breaking his repeated promise and forcing British Columbians to fund, through their taxes, political parties that they have no interest or desire to support?" opposition Liberal MLA Mike de Jong said.
Although the subsidy will start at $2.50 a vote next year, it will decrease to $1.75 a vote in 2022 when it is to be reviewed. Only three parties now qualify for the subsidy: the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens.
A Globe and Mail analysis of fundraising data from 2016 shows that if the new rules were in place that year, both the NDP and Liberals would have earned much less, even with the subsidy. The Greens, in contrast, would have reaped a windfall if the subsidy were in place.
The Liberals brought in $13.1-million in donations in 2016, roughly two thirds from corporations, unions or other organizations. The party received $4.6-million in individual donations. After subtracting donations in excess of the proposed $1,200 limit, that would leave $3.1-million under the proposed new rules.
The New Democrats received $6.2-million in donations, including $3.9-million from individuals. After accounting for donations above $1,200, that would have left the party with $3.6-million of donations that would have been permissible under the new rules.
The Liberals and the New Democrats are each set to receive about $1.9-million next year from the subsidy.
The Greens would be the big winners. Almost all of the party's $757,000 in donations were from individuals, and most were for amounts under the proposed limit, leaving $715,000 of donations that would be allowed under the new rules. The party is set to receive $830,000 next year from the subsidy.
Political scientist Richard Johnston of the University of British Columbia said there's no consensus among academics on how the subsidies have worked in Canada.
"Most political scientists, at least in Canada, seem to like the idea of subsidies of one kind or another although there's a body of opinion that says that undermines the incentives of parties to get out there and build their grassroots," Mr. Johnston said in an interview.
"Here, the hope has to be that the parties have enough money that they can get their message out and do the investment in things like campaign analysis and voter databases and that kind of stuff to mobilize the electorate. Democracy doesn't come free."
Duff Conacher, co-founder of the non-profit Democracy Watch, said the subsidies in B.C. are too high and should be reduced to no more than $1 per vote.