British Columbia could be a leader in North America if it moved to "real-time" reporting of political contributions, as proposed by Premier Christy Clark, a new report from the province's chief electoral officer says.
But the change would be highly disruptive and costly.
"Requiring the disclosure of political contributions within 24 or 48 hours is as close to real-time disclosure as is reasonably possible and would make B.C. a leader in this regard in North America," Keith Archer wrote in a discussion paper released Wednesday, responding to the government's request to assess the options to transform the Premier's commitment into law.
Real-time reporting – or close to it – would require significant changes at Elections BC, and would have "very high" implications for political parties, candidates, constituency associations and leadership contestants. It would cost $150,000 annually to maintain. The changes would be so complex, Elections BC would not be able to work out the details until after the May, 2017, provincial election, he said.
Ms. Clark announced her intention to introduce "real-time" disclosure of political contributions in March, after stories in The Globe and Mail chronicled how her B.C. Liberal Party has stepped up its fundraising efforts for the 2017 election campaign through small, private gatherings with the Premier at a cost of $10,000 or more per plate.
"I'm going to be asking our Chief Electoral Officer to help us change the law in the province so that we can log in the donations in real time. People should be able to see when donations come in to political parties, not just once a year," Ms. Clark told reporters at the time.
Annual disclosures released this spring by Elections BC show the provincial 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 the Premier or other legislators.
NDP Leader John Horgan said the real-time disclosure proposal is not the kind of election finance reform that voters want.
"The end result is not only a pain in the butt but prohibitively expensive," he said in an interview. The NDP has proposed a bill to end corporate and union donations – although it continues to solicit such donations because, party officials say, the New Democrats still have to raise millions of dollars to compete with the Liberals in the next election.
"The Premier wants to give the impression that she has taken action when all she has done is create costs and really done nothing to address the material issue – the massive amounts of money that are involved in the current political process," Mr. Horgan said.
Mr. Archer makes no recommendations but did offer less-disruptive options, including a reporting process that would disclose donations every three months, which is similar to the federal model. Such changes could be brought into law before the next election.
Or, B.C. could follow Ontario's rules and require disclosure within 10 business days after a contribution worth more than $250. That would be more transparent than quarterly or even monthly reports, but would still have a high impact on political parties and other groups that would be required to report. In 2013 – the last provincial election year – the NDP collected almost 48,000 donations, while the Liberals recorded 8,700 donations. The magnitude of the changes required, Mr. Archer wrote, would mean the Ontario option could not be put in place until after the next election.
Justine Minister Suzanne Anton, who made the request to the chief electoral officer on the Premier's behalf, said the government will need some time to decide which option to choose. "The Premier is very interested in increased transparency and greater frequency of reporting so we are clearly interested in considering all of these options." However, she acknowledged that the option to report donations within 24 hours of receipt "might be challenging."