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In 2016, majority of money raised by BC Liberals came from cash-for-access fundraisers

Premier Christy Clark and the BC Liberals reported holding 143 events last year grossing $6.9-million.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The governing B.C. Liberals brought in more than half their $13-million in donations last year from controversial cash-for-access fundraisers, such as golf tournaments and dinners with the Premier, techniques that have been widely criticized for helping create a "Wild West" political system unlike any other in Canada.

Elections BC data released last week show the party reported holding 143 events last year grossing $6.9-million – more than the $6.2-million the opposition New Democrats received from any type of donation. The NDP, whose leader has promised to ban corporate and union donations if elected in May, held 96 fundraising events last year that grossed $1.2-million.

The issue of political fundraising is expected to emerge as a campaign issue ahead of the May 9 vote in a province that has few limits on who can donate or how much they can give. The governing Liberals have so far rebuffed calls to ban private fundraising events in which corporate donors are invited to pay thousands of dollars to meet with candidates, cabinet ministers or the Premier.

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Investigation: How B.C. lobbyists are breaking one of the province's few political donation rules

Christy Clark recently responded to such criticism by promising to appoint an independent panel to review B.C. campaign finance laws, though the Premier has not said what, if any, limits she believes should be imposed.

The events have become a lucrative source of revenue for the BC Liberals. For example, the party raised $938,800 at a single event on June 6 in Vancouver. In contrast, the NDP's biggest fundraiser was an event on Oct. 27 called the Leader's Levee, which grossed $192,861 from several hundred attendees.

Such events factored into a recent Globe and Mail investigation that found lobbyists and others had donated in their own names and were later reimbursed by the companies they represent. Such indirect donations – which often involve purchasing tickets for fundraising dinners – are prohibited under the province's election laws, and the RCMP is now investigating.

The Liberals have identified at least 43 prohibited donations worth about $93,000 that are being returned, as well as at least 30 others with "clerical errors." The NDP has identified five prohibited donations.

Most of the Liberal events detailed in Elections BC financial reports were reported as fundraisers or golf tournaments, while the New Democrats often married food with their events and branched out into playing host to bowlathons or art exhibitions.

The Liberals also shelled out a lot more to stage such events, spending $2.2-million last year compared with the opposition party's $319,455.

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Not every fundraiser was a win.

A women's networking event held on Jan 25, 2016 lost the Liberals $14.70 despite selling 24 tickets for $20 a piece. The New Democrats held a tournament for the popular Settlers of Catan board game and wound up grossing just $239.50 on June 11.

The Greens held 10 fundraising functions last year that grossed the party almost $30,000.

The Elections BC data released last week show both main parties would lose substantial funds if corporate and union donations were banned, with Liberal figures showing nearly two thirds of their money – $7.7-million – came from a relatively small collection of corporate and other business donors. That dwarfs the $1.8-million donated to the NDP by unions.

Both parties have been dogged by sustained national and international coverage of the province's lax political finance rules. The NDP have advocated banning corporate and union donations even though the party accepts those donations now. The Greens have already stopped taking money from corporations and unions. And while the Liberals are promising to review the rules, the party has not advocated they be changed.

Other governments tightened their rules after a recent Globe investigation into political fundraisers. The Trudeau Liberals effectively banned private cash-for-access events – in addition to already strict limits of about $1,500 a year a donor. Ontario's Liberal government put an annual cap of $1,200 on donations and barred MPPs from attending cash-for-access fundraisers.

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