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B.C. tackles campaign finance reform — without turning off taps on 'big money'

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark arrives to respond to the federal government approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project, during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday November 30, 2016.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Starting in January, the B.C. Liberals will provide greater disclosure of who is contributing how much to their party. It is not quite what Premier Christy Clark promised last March in response to questions about cash-for-access fundraisers. And it goes only a small distance toward the kind of campaign finance reform legislation the Alberta NDP government introduced last week.

Alberta's proposed reforms are similar to changes Ontario just adopted. But in British Columbia, the governing party has not been persuaded it should turn off the taps on "big money."

"We made a commitment to get big money out of politics for the benefit of all Albertans," Christina Gray, Alberta's Minister Responsible for Democratic Renewal, said in an interview. When the New Democrats took power in 2015, ending the 44-year reign of the Progressive Conservative government, the first bill they introduced banned union and corporation donations. "This is the next step, it strengthens the integrity of the democratic process [and] improves financial transparency," Ms. Gray said.

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In Alberta, as in Ontario, the changes mean that parties will be more dependent on the support of individuals, and on a relatively equal basis. The B.C. Liberals unapologetically bring their free-enterprise spirit to fundraising.

Ms. Clark promised more disclosure about political contributions last spring. She was responding to stories in The Globe and Mail that chronicled how her B.C. Liberal Party has stepped up its fundraising efforts for the 2017 election campaign through small, private gatherings with the Premier at a ticket price of $10,000 or more. "I'm going to be asking our Chief Electoral Officer to help us change the law in the province so that we can log in the donations in real time," she told reporters last March. "People should be able to see when donations come in to political parties, not just once a year."

At her behest, the Chief Electoral Officer produced a report in May that outlined three options for reform. But the government shelved the proposals, saying any legislative changes need more study. Work is being done, according to the Ministry of Justice, but it is unclear if a bill will be presented before the election in May.

By contrast, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne last spring ordered legislative changes after The Globe reported on fundraisers at which she and members of her cabinet offered intimate face-time to corporate leaders and lobbyists seeking government contracts and favourable policy decisions in exchange for donations of up to $10,000 to the Ontario Liberal Party. The province has just passed legislation that will ban union and corporate donations, cap annual donations from individuals at a total of $3,600, and curtail cash-for-access fundraising by elected officials and their top political staff. That law will be in force in on Jan. 1.

Ms. Clark, speaking with reporters on Dec. 1, said she has lived up to the commitments she made last March because her party will begin timely disclosure in the new year and post donations within 10 business days on its website. "I would argue it is exactly what we said it was going to be. I don't know if the NDP is planning to do this as well, but starting Jan. 1, we will be filing ... as close to real time as you can get."

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No, the B.C. NDP will not follow suit. Leader John Horgan, who is calling for a legislated ban on union and corporation donations, calls real-time disclosure a distraction from the need to end the influence of big money in politics. "This real-time discourse is a red herring," he said in an interview. "Our plan is to form the next government and then ban union and corporate donations."

Until the law is changed, he said, his party will raise every dollar it can for the next election. But he is not prepared to peel back the secrecy around fundraising either. On Nov. 24, the New Democrats held a resource-industry fundraising event in which attendees could pay $10,000 to dine with Mr. Horgan, and he would not say who attended. That means it will be next April before Elections BC's annual disclosures will show who donated to the NDP, and how much.

British Columbia is not keeping up with Alberta in reform because the governing party benefits from the status quo. The B.C. Liberals raised $5.3-million from corporations in 2015, more than five times as much as the NDP. Ms. Clark is not interested in changing the formula, and Mr. Horgan will not lead by example to make the case for change.

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