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B.C.’s political fundraising makes a mockery of democracy

It is doubtful the news that B.C.'s Supreme Court is being petitioned to throw out rulings that cleared Christy Clark of conflict-of-interest allegations connected to her fundraising activities incited any emergency meetings of the Premier's Liberal government.

In fact, I doubt Ms. Clark even tried stifling a yawn over the matter.

No, of all the things keeping the Premier up at night, this court challenge is definitely not one of them. It has been launched by the Ottawa-based advocacy group Democracy Watch, and asks the court to toss out decisions Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser made in May and August because he was in a conflict himself.

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Mr. Fraser's son, John, is a high-ranking member of Ms. Clark's government, not to mention a friend of the Premier. Paul Fraser recused himself in an unrelated case against Ms. Clark in 2012 on the grounds that his son's role in government could be viewed as creating the perception of a conflict.

In the matter of Ms. Clark's fundraising activities he did not take the same position. Nevertheless, one of the complainants, the NDP's David Eby, who is also a lawyer, said he had confidence Mr. Fraser could deliver an unbiased verdict.

While many were disappointed in Mr. Fraser's ruling, it seemed inevitable from the start. B.C. has few laws governing how political parties raise money. So, for instance, Ms. Clark can attend intimate dinners with a handful of people, each of whom has paid $10,000, or twice that amount, for the right to bend her ear for a while. No problem.

Mr. Fraser was asked to consider the fact Ms. Clark is paid a salary, in addition to the one she receives as Premier, from the B.C. Liberal Party. Last year, it was $50,000 – money derived entirely from the very fundraisers the Premier headlines. Mr. Eby and Democracy Watch had argued that this was a direct benefit to the Premier from her fundraising activities. Mr. Fraser disagreed.

If nothing else, the recent challenge from Democracy Watch provides another opportunity to shine a light on fundraising practices that have been shunned virtually everywhere else in the country.

Ontario recently moved to ban the type of cash-for-access events Ms. Clark and her ministers attend routinely. Meantime, the federal lobbying commissioner announced this week she will investigate fundraising dinners the federal Liberals are holding at which people pay up to $1,500 to meet senior ministers of the Crown.

Chicken feed by B.C. standards.

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The fundraising free-for-all in B.C. is a national disgrace. There are virtually no rules, which is exactly the way the governing Liberals like it. They are far more adept at raising money from their rich, corporate donors than the New Democratic Party is at hitting up cash-strapped unions. It gives the Liberals a massive financial – and ultimately electoral – advantage they refuse to give up.

Almost as pathetic are the rationalizations being proffered these days by friends of the provincial Liberals in defence of the status quo, the lamest being that this is the way it has always worked. Yes, it worked that way in other provinces as well until people awoke to the ugly moral and ethical quagmires a fundraising method like B.C.'s creates.

In most cases, public outrage with a "system" that was profoundly undemocratic generated the change.

The other argument you hear is that elections are expensive. How are parties supposed to pay for their campaigns if not through fundraising? Yes, elections cost money and they are certainly steeper affairs for parties that have buckets of cash. Nasty television ads are costly, especially if you hope to run far, far more of them than your opponent.

But that should have no bearing on any honest discussion of election costs – just as the formidable campaign infrastructure of a wealthy political party should not be considered in the debate about election outlays. Taxpayers would be happy to fund basic election expenses and then let the political parties pay whatever they want on top of that from, say, maximum $250-a-year donations from individuals. (Quebec does it with limits of $100 per person.)

That would be much fairer.

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Just don't let anyone tell you that the wishes of big, wealthy donors are not acknowledged and respected by governing parties. They are. A specific government policy does not always have a direct line to a particular supporter.

The advantage that backer gets for his support may come in the form of something a government does not do as much as it does from a policy change it institutes.

Either way, the current fundraising system in B.C. is a sham, and fundamentally dishonest. It allows the elites to continue to call the shots, while average citizens are forced to abide by what they say.

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