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On every level, evidence of a Vancouver city councillor making promises to a union ahead of a massive campaign donation is extremely damning.

In a tape recording obtained by freelance journalist Bob Mackin, Vision Vancouver alderman Geoff Meggs is heard making a pitch to a group of CUPE officials gathered in early October to discuss which parties the union should support in the civic election. Mr. Meggs first butters up the officers from Local 1004 by saying he couldn't imagine the city functioning without the services of its members.

Then Mr. Meggs tells the group that Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson "has again recommitted to not expand contracting out, to make sure that wherever we can bring in new processes, that members of 1004 will be delivering those services." Not much to misinterpret there. Later that evening, CUPE decided to give Vision $102,000 in cash, another $10,000 to cover the salaries of CUPE activists who take time off to work for the party, and yet another $7,000 for pro-Vision advertising.

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Not a bad day's work for Mr. Meggs and the three other Vision candidates who attended the meeting.

For that, you would have expected he would be applauded by his boss, Mr. Robertson. Instead, when confronted with this matter at a mayoral debate, the Vision leader effectively disowned his most valuable colleague.

"He is not my councillor," Mr. Robertson said in a bizarre response to the issue. Not his councillor? A couple of days later, after advisers helped the mayor regain his senses, Mr. Robertson indeed remembered that Mr. Meggs worked alongside him, and beyond that, said he had no problem with what his colleague told the union.

He was merely re-stating existing Vision policy, the mayor said.

What Mr. Meggs told the union members that day may not have been new, but it sounded dreadful nonetheless. It could be construed as a promise in exchange for cash. As damaging, the influential alderman was showing the city's hand ahead of the next set of contract negotiations with CUPE. Also, now that other unions know this, they're going to be after the city for sweetheart deals of their own.

That muttering you hear is Vancouver taxpayers asking themselves if this is Vision's idea of responsible stewardship.

The sad reality is these kind of backroom deals are standard fare in B.C. It just so happens that this particular overture was caught on tape. I don't believe for a second Mr. Meggs is corrupt. In fact, he's one of the ablest politicians that Vancouver has. As wrong as it appears, he was playing within the rules in this province that allow parties to seek unlimited campaign donations from unions and corporations.

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When it comes to campaign finance laws in this country, B.C. is a disgraceful laggard. Elections continue to be bought and paid for by deep-pocketed donors. Vision is among those political parties that are actually lobbying the government to join the 21st century and bring in rules that would help eliminate the perception that elections in the province are corrupted by money. Like the provincial New Democratic Party, Vision would like to see the end of union and corporate donations. The civic Non-Partisan Association is calling for the same.

Everyone is fine with the idea except the provincial Liberals. They want to keep the campaign laws pretty much as they are. They've promised limits on how much parties and candidates can spend, but are steadfast against the idea of banning corporate and union cash infusions. Of course, the Liberals would be. Corporations donate far more to them than unions do to the NDP. The existing rules create an uneven playing field that tilts the election game in favour of the governing party.

Who cares what is right and proper and the ethical thing to do? This is politics and it's cutthroat and you don't ever give up an advantage if it might lead to your downfall.

If you think the kind of meeting that occurred between Vision and CUPE doesn't take place between B.C. Liberal Party officials and business types around election time, you're crazy. They make promises too. They're just not secretly taped. This is the ugly underbelly of politics that no one likes to talk about.

As unseemly as the CUPE recording is, the sound of provincial Liberals defending the status quo on campaign donations is equally as disturbing. Corporate and union donations need to be banned. All you need to do is listen to Geoff Meggs talking to his union friends to know how wrong it is.

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