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British Columbia Christy Clark defends position on private political fundraisers

Christy Clark speaks at a press conference on March 18. The B.C. premier told reporters Wednesday that British Columbians have enough information under present disclosure laws to be assured that politicians are behaving ethically.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is defending her participation in private political fundraisers, and voted Wednesday against fast-tracking debate on a private member's bill that would ban corporate and union donations to the province's political parties.

While Ontario is moving quickly to reform campaign finance, Ms. Clark told reporters British Columbians have enough information under present disclosure laws to be assured that politicians are behaving ethically.

Ms. Clark was responding to questions for the first time about campaign finance after The Globe and Mail reported on Liberal fundraising events at which individuals paid $10,000 or more to meet the Premier in private, informal settings.

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"The disclosure is the most important part of it," Ms. Clark said. "The rules we have currently – although there can be some improvements to that – I think do help us to help protect people in making sure that ethical behaviour is respected."

Annual disclosures released this week by Elections BC show the BC Liberals raised $10-million in 2015, and more than half of that money came from corporate donations. What those reports do not reveal is whether any donations – some as high as $50,000 – were given in exchange for exclusive access to lawmakers.

The Premier said she does not give special treatment to her party's major donors.

"I couldn't confirm for you which events cost how much," Ms. Clark told reporters. "I don't walk into an event and say, 'How much did people pay to get in here?'"

Ms. Clark's government has asked Keith Archer, the Chief Electoral Officer, to look into "real-time" disclosure of political contributions but that change would still not provide details around the circumstances of donations. In her written request to Mr. Archer, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the proposal to move to monthly or quarterly disclosure statements is not a priority over other tasks, and no deadline has been indicated.

Opposition NDP Leader John Horgan said the Premier's private political fundraisers are unseemly: "I think the optics are terrible," he said after tabling the bill.

However, he will not stop holding his own private fundraisers, saying his party needs to raise enough money to compete against the BC Liberals in the May, 2017, election. "At the end of the day, big money is driving the boat and they can buy time in your news outlets, they can buy big billboards, they can buy a whole lot of stuff."

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As well, Mr. Horgan will not reveal who attends his own fundraisers, such as a $2,000-a-plate event this week in Vancouver with 30 individuals. "I'm not going to unilaterally disarm … If I have someone who wants sit down and talk to me, and they want to give me 50 grand, I'll take that. We had a chance to change the rules today and the BC Liberals said 'no.' They said 'no' when it comes to getting millionaires out of the political process."

This year will be a critical fundraising year for B.C.'s political parties. During the election campaign, which runs April 11 to May 9 of next year, the parties face a spending limit of $4.4-million. Major advertising buys immediately before the campaign are not included in that cap.

Mr. Horgan sought to refer his bill to a legislature committee to ensure the Liberals would be forced to debate the details.

What happened instead was the next best thing, strategically, for the Opposition. In a standing vote in the House, the New Democrats, Independent MLA Vicki Huntington and BC Green MLA Andrew Weaver all supported the bill. The government side stood against the manoeuvre, a clear indication that the bill is destined to die on the order paper – just like the four previous versions that the NDP has introduced over the years.

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