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British Columbia Limits to campaign donations could affect democracy, B.C. minister says

Proposed legislation from Peter Fassbender’s office sets limits on campaign expense, but not on campaign donations.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Candidates running for city councils and school boards across British Columbia shouldn't have too many limits put on their campaign donations because that would infringe on free speech and democracy, says the province's communities minister, who is introducing controversial new legislation on campaign financing.

The proposed legislation from Peter Fassbender's office does set limits on campaign expenses, based on a city's population, and on third-party advertising.

But it sets no limits on campaign donations, no bans on corporate or union donations, no requirement to disclose donations before the election and no requirement to report donations in years outside the election year.

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That goes against what the province's union of municipalities, with Vancouver council leading the way, has asked for since 2013 because of concerns about multimillion-dollar elections or campaigns in which one donor appears to have too much influence.

But the minister said there are problems with setting tight limits on donations and who can donate.

"I'm one who believes strongly in democracy and people's right to be engaged," said Mr. Fassbender, a former mayor of the City of Langley. "If there is too tight a box [around campaign donations], people will say it affects free speech and democracy."

Many local politicians from various cities and parties, as well as NDP MLAs, say the proposed new rules will change almost nothing about the current problems in campaign financing and will lead to more public distrust of government.

"It will actually make the problem significantly worse," said Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer. "There is a problem with a perception about the influence of corporate and union donations. If you lower expense limits, but there are no donation limits, a single donor can have much more influence."

Vancouver-Point Grey NDP MLA David Eby said people in his west-side riding are already suspicious about the impact that developer donations are having on Vancouver council decisions.

The lack of donation limits will only amplify that, he said.

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"It's a huge issue for my constituents. They're very cynical. And that sort of cynicism isn't good for anyone in government," said Mr. Eby.

Vancouver Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr also said it's disappointing that the province hasn't budged from its earlier positions.

Besides the problem of not limiting corporate and union donations, she said, the way the legislation sets the expense limits is also problematic.

It's based on population, not voters, so that cities with large numbers of people not eligible to vote will still have high expense limits.

And the expense limits are so generous that "there will still be multimillion-dollar campaigns," she said.

The proposed expense limits would restrict Vancouver and Surrey to about $200,000 each for mayoral candidates and about $100,000 each for council candidates. Candidates in a place like central Saanich would be limited to about $15,000 for a mayoral campaign, $7,000 for a council candidate's.

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There is one local mayor who worries that those limits will push small municipalities into party politics, as candidates with low limits combine forces to be able to pay for campaigns.

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, who would be restricted to about $40,000, or half of what the local MP is allowed for his campaign, said he's not sure why the legislation is needed at all.

"I don't know what we're trying to fix. I didn't see out-of-control spending in most cities. And I haven't seen too many examples of where spending more got someone elected."

The recommendations in the legislation came from an all-party committee in Victoria, but that committee was only allowed to consider expense limits, not donation limits, said Coquitlam-Maillardville NDP MLA Selina Robinson.

"We pushed as much as we could to expand the role," said Ms. Robinson, but she and her NDP colleague Jenny Kwan were unsuccessful.

The proposed legislation is being presented for public comment, which can be submitted until Nov. 27. The new law has to be in place by June, 2016, to be in effect for the fall 2018 elections.

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