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b.c. election 2017

The New Democrats have pledged to end “big money’s influence on government.” But NDP Leader John Horgan has said that, to be competitive, the party must play within the rules.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The New Democrats are relying on the help of more than a dozen United Steelworkers employees to shape and deliver the party's message during the B.C. election campaign, with the salaries of its most senior campaign staff being paid by the union.

The revelation put the NDP on the defensive on Monday. It immediately released a statement noting that Liberal Leader Christy Clark has accepted millions in donations from forestry companies while the province lost 30,000 forestry jobs under her party.

Glen Sanford, the NDP's deputy director, is among those being paid by the Steelworkers. He said the party is not doing anything illegal.

"We're playing by the rules that exist. The election is far too important to concede to Christy," Mr. Sanford said.

He said he takes his orders from the party.

"I am not accountable to the Steelworkers at all," Mr. Sanford said in an interview.

The others employed by the Steelworkers include Bob Dewar, the party's campaign director, and long-time NDP campaign organizer Gerry Scott.

The NDP have condemned the Liberals for their willingness to keep B.C. as the so-called wild west of campaign finance. British Columbia has no limits on the amount of money a party can accept from individuals, corporations or unions.

The New Democrats have pledged to end "big money's influence on government." But NDP Leader John Horgan has said that, to be competitive, the party must play within the rules.

The NDP slammed the Liberals on Monday for accepting donations amounting to $241,000 from Weyerhaeuser since 2005. The company has a large stake in the lumber industry in Canada and the United States.

Mr. Horgan said Ms. Clark and the BC Liberals have been bought by the same "greedy lumber barons" she complained about last week in reference to the softwood dispute between Canada and the United States.

"For the BC Liberals to say from the first-class lounge that the big lobbyists and the big donors don't have influence, I'll leave that to your readers to decide," Mr. Horgan said.

The NDP staffers' salaries from the Steelworkers are considered an in-kind contribution. Rather than donate cash, the Steelworkers put members on the union's payroll, and loan them to the NDP. Elections BC figures show the New Democrats accepted more than $672,000 from the Steelworkers last year.

Stephen Hunt, director for the United Steelworkers in Western Canada, was non-apologetic about the arrangement and said there was no difference between lending staff and handing over money.

"We are a partisan union," he said in an interview. "We do it because we want to win the election."

He said forest-sector jobs for members of his union have disappeared under the Liberals while 100 mills closed, and regulatory changes have led to a less safe workplace.

"We have every right to fight and we do support this party. Are they perfect? No. But we are looking for a better society, and under the Liberals, it has been horrible."

Ms. Clark said there is a significant difference between taking donations and employing members of an interest group. The Liberals have also seized upon the Steelworkers' position siding with U.S. President Donald Trump in supporting some protectionist policies that would hurt B.C.'s forestry sector.

"Everybody takes donations," she said. "But the thing is, does the donation change your decision? Does the donation mean you give up on B.C. forestry workers? In John Horgan's case it does." Parties are allowed to spend about $4.8-million in an election campaign. The salaries of the workers would be disclosed to Elections BC in the same way as a donation.

"They are booked exactly the same, it looks like a political contribution of the value of the services provided by those individuals," Nola Western of Elections BC said. "It's only the value of their work during the election period that is an election expense."

No one at the NDP could say what the workers were being paid, although Mr. Hunt characterized it as a "modest hourly wage."

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said the financial system in B.C. is the scandal, and that it leads to other scandals.

"The B.C. political finance system, because it has no limits, is essentially a form of legalized bribery," he said. "Just because the donations are legal doesn't mean they're ethical. And it creates an appearance of a conflict of interest and that means that the politician cannot take part in decisions under the B.C. ethics law."

British Columbia’s NDP is promising to build urgent care centres to ease pressure on hospitals if elected. Leader John Horgan says 200,000 residents can’t find a family doctor and some are visiting emergency rooms for care.

The Canadian Press

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