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B.C. Premier Clark set to promise independent commission on campaign finance reform

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is expected to acknowledge mounting criticism over the province’s political fundraising rules on Monday by promising an independent commission to usher in campaign finance reform.

Chad Hipolit/The Canadian Pres

In a major about-face, B.C. Premier Christy Clark is expected to acknowledge mounting criticism over the province's mostly unfettered political fundraising rules on Monday by promising an independent commission to usher in campaign finance reform.

The commission, according to a senior government source, would be appointed after the May 9 election to make recommendations to the legislature for rewriting the rules governing political donations. Those rules have not been substantially altered in more than 20 years.

Related: Long-awaited B.C. legislation on campaign finance reform won't limit donations

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Read more: RCMP to investigate political donations in B.C.

Globe Investigation: The 'wild west' of fundraising

It is a turnaround for the BC Liberal government. Over the past year, since Ms. Clark's rich, private cash-for-access fundraisers came to light, the Premier and her top officials have defended the status quo, all the while aggressively tapping their donors for cash.

The Premier offered a hint of change last week when she told reporters, "The system we have is not perfect and there are lots of things that we can and should do to fix it."

However, her new approach is being rolled out only after the RCMP launched in investigation on Friday of potential contraventions of the Elections Act, a probe triggered by a Globe and Mail report that the BC Liberal Party collected tens of thousands of dollars in multiple donations from lobbyists who paid under their own names on behalf of clients and companies, and were later reimbursed. Indirect political donations are prohibited.

The RCMP investigation could also ensnare the opposition NDP, as that party has also taken money from some of the same lobbyists. But the probe is unlikely to produce answers before the election just two months from now.

By offering up an independent commission this week, the Premier is publicly accepting that values around campaign finance have changed. But by stalling until now, her party did not lose a critical year of fundraising that has set up the BC Liberals with a huge war chest to fight the coming election.

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Since the Premier first faced questions one year ago about campaign financing, Ms. Clark has maintained that the problem with the current system was simply one of transparency: She argued the public wanted more frequent disclosure of donations to political parties.

British Columbia permits unlimited donations from individuals, corporations, unions and foreign agents, so political parties can accept donations that would not be allowed almost anywhere else in Canada. Ms. Clark says that is better than the alternative of a taxpayer-subsidized political system.

The status quo has served her BC Liberal party well. Last year, the party collected more than $12-million in donations, which is double the amount that their chief rivals, the NDP, were able to shake out of donors' pockets. Pre-election fundraising has continued this year at a feverish pace, a detail that is clear because the BC Liberals have adopted real-time reporting of their donations.

But the BC Liberals' voluntary disclosures have not quelled public skepticism about the idea that individuals and organizations are tossing the governing party large sums – some donations as high as $200,000 – without expecting some kind of influence in return.

On Monday, Ms. Clark's government will introduce a bill that would legally require parties to provide "real time" disclosure of donations. That bill is also expected to demand more detailed reporting than is currently provided by the BC Liberals, by requiring parties to also state what day the money was paid and where it was collected. But it would maintain the principle that political parties should rely on donations rather than a publicly funded system.

However, the bill would be just one of the proposals that would be offered up for review by the commission, along with three other campaign finance reform bills that are now before the legislature from the BC NDP, the BC Greens, and Independent MLA Vicki Huntington. As well, the reforms proposed by the federal Liberals, which Premier Clark has described as "interesting," will be considered.

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From the start, the Premier has maintained that when an organization hands her party a six-figure cheque, or a person pays $10,000 for a private dinner with the Premier, this money has no bearing on how her party governs.

It is clear that the public doesn't see it that way. And with an election looming, Ms. Clark has decided it is time to clean up the wild west of campaign finance.

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