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Dawn Black, left, and George Abbott are former B.C. MLAs.

The Canadian Press

Each week during the campaign, former MLAs George Abbott and Dawn Black will be joining Globe reporters for an online chat about the hottest issues of the election. This week, in the first instalment, our panel of experts discuss electoral finance reform, campaign ads and a whole lot more.

Given that parties recently saw their latest financial reports released to the public, I thought a good first discussion question would be about electoral finance. Why are there no limits to the amount that can be donated to a party or candidate?

Abbott: I suppose that this is reflective of the political history of B.C. Over the past two decades, first of NDP government, then of B.C. Liberal government, there has been some institutional reform: a 30-minute Question Period, etc., but there has not been a lot of debate around election financing. There are actually limits to what a candidate can spend during the writ period, enforced by Elections BC. There are also some new rules with respect to municipal election finance, but provincial limits will be relatively new ground.

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Black: [In] other provinces and federally, [lawmakers] have instituted campaign donation reform, too. It's important to ensure that elections are fought on a level playing field.

Abbott: B.C. is like New Zealand, Australia and other small Western democracies. Parties of the centre and centre-right enjoy greater corporate support, and parties of the left and centre-left enjoy greater union support. How one limits that support requires an incredibly careful balance.

Adrian Dix is proposing that both union and corporate donations be ended in B.C. Where else has a government banned outright donations from unions and corporations?

Black: Manitoba, Quebec and also federally in Canada – all have banned union and corporate donations. Mr. Dix said, if he becomes premier, there will be a legislative committee struck with representation from each party, also from independents, to report to the legislature.

Abbott: It will be interesting to see how Adrian Dix could achieve that goal. Will there be, as in the federal realm, subsidization of votes and parties out of the public purse? People will always find ways to contribute to political parties if they feel passionately about the party or the campaign. Contributions may come individually through attending fundraising dinners and events. However, a company or a union can purchase entire tables at the dinner or event.

On a related note – although not directly tied to electoral finance reform, but definitely connected to voter engagement – what do you two think should be done about campaign ads? What sort of limits, if any, should be placed on what/how parties advertise during the campaign?

Abbott: Depending on population size within any given constituency, there is an imposed limit from Elections BC on post-writ spending, generally in the range of $60,000 to $70,000. Advertising, particularly on television, but even in newspapers and radio, doesn't go that far under those limits. There are a host of expenses, from signs to campaign office rent that eat into that allocation.

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Black: There are limits already in terms of what can be spent. It's a tricky business, though, if you try to legislate third-party advertising – and there have been court challenges.

Where do you two sit on the question of freedom of expression? Do you think groups such as the Sierra Club, or business groups, should be allowed to communicate to voters during the election?

Abbott: Yes, I do think that third parties should have the opportunity to communicate with voters during the campaign. I think that is fundamental in a democracy. That said, it again goes to the question of striking an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and potentially attempting to dominate the advertising field.

Black: It's important that all voices are heard during a campaign, but we must guard against the ability of organizations with deep pockets being able to dominate the airwaves. There is a fundamental difference between communicating with voters and having the financial resources to drown out other voices. George is right – it is a question of striking the appropriate balance.

This online chat, held Tuesday morning, has been edited and condensed for print. Join us next Tuesday at 10 a.m. PST for the next instalment of our pundit panel discussion at tgam.ca/bcvotesblog

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