Municipal politicians in British Columbia are preparing for an overhaul to the province's campaign-finance laws, which could trickle down to civic election races that have been governed by the same "Wild West" rules currently under scrutiny in the legislature.
The BC Liberals tabled legislation Monday to implement a series of reforms, including banning corporate donations, after a Throne Speech that promised changes at both the provincial and municipal levels.
The bill quickly died in the minority legislature, as the New Democrats and Greens prepare to vote down the Liberals and take power, but the issue is expected to remain at the top of the agenda even after a change in government.
Local politicians say they welcome the potential for reforms ahead of civic elections scheduled across the province in the fall of 2018.
"It's very exciting to be at a stage where this might finally be implemented," said Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer, a member of the city's Vision Vancouver party.
Ms. Reimer has been one of the main advocates for contribution limits and a ban on corporate and union donations at the municipal level, which all civic parties in Vancouver support.
B.C.'s current campaign-finance laws place no limits on donations and do not limit who can contribute, allowing election expenses to soar in recent election cycles to as high as $3-million for the ruling Vision Vancouver party.
"The general sense from the public is that they want finance reform," said George Affleck, a councillor with Vancouver's Non-Partisan Association, a party that used to dominate city politics but which has been out of power for almost a decade.
So, Mr. Affleck said, he supports the idea of the new law coming into place for the 2018 election, even though it might penalize his party. He said that's because Vision Vancouver has been raising huge amounts of money since the previous election ended in 2014, which has allowed that party to continue building its database of supportive voters and communicate with them.
That will give Vision an advantage even if new rules are imposed by September or October by a new provincial government.
He is also concerned that new rules might not tackle an issue he thinks is a factor in elections, which is the way that unions will pay for "volunteers" to work for parties such as Vision. That's a type of donation that centre-right parties such as his can't take advantage of, he said, because companies won't pay for employees to work on political campaigns.
"There has to be much more clarity on people donating their time," Mr. Affleck said.
Such arrangements became an issue in the recent provincial campaign when it emerged that more than a dozen employees of the United Steelworkers were working for the New Democrats, including several senior campaign officials. The workers' salaries would be reported as in-kind donations.
The BC Liberals' proposed campaign-finance law would have explicitly banned such in-kind donations, according to last week's Throne Speech.
On the other hand, Mr. Affleck said, campaign-finance rules that ban corporate and union donations and limit individual contributions will probably favour the NPA.
In the 2014, the NPA raised $695,000 from individual donors and the rest of its $2.4-million campaign budget from corporations. Vision Vancouver raised $753,000 from individual donors, $385,000 from unions and $2.2-million from corporations, according to filings with Elections BC.
Vision Vancouver representatives, on the other hand, said that the restrictions on raising money will probably favour the party that can get out more volunteers.
"Whoever can harness those free-labour residents will do better in a less-money environment," former Vision president Ian Baillie said. And he said, for the moment, that works in Vision's favour because it appeals more to young people who are more willing to dedicate time.
He acknowledged the Green Party would also likely benefit from that as well. The Green Party has a policy of not taking corporate donations, so it had only individual contributions in the most recent civic election.
All agreed that campaign-finance changes will create a more level playing field and help smaller parties and independents compete.
But it's unclear yet which measures a potential bill supported by an NDP-Green coalition would include.
NDP MLA Selina Robinson, who has been the critic on the file, said it's been difficult for the party to come up with a specific proposal because of the current confusion over who will end up governing the province.
"We haven't been able to do anything because we haven't received any transition binders, so we have no idea what's in progress already."
The Liberals had steadfastly refused over the years to ban corporation or union donations or to limit individual contributions. The Liberal government did not allow banning of corporate and union donations to be included in terms of reference for a recent committee investigating municipal campaign finance reform.
Despite that, numerous stakeholders did include their wish to ban such donations in the "further comments" section of feedback, according to a freedom-of-information request by The Globe and Mail.
With a report from Mike Hager