From a poll released earlier this week, you might think that British Columbia's governing Liberals are under massive public pressure to modernize their province's shockingly lax campaign-finance rules.
According to the survey of about 800 British Columbians by the firm Insights West, paid for by a group that advocates for new political donation rules, a whopping 86 per cent would favour a ban on currently limitless corporate and union contributions to political parties and candidates. (The margin of error is 3.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.) And 76 per cent said they would support a cap on personal donations, which B.C. currently lacks as well.
No surprise there. Other than the small number of people who donate large amounts of money, or hard-core libertarians, who wouldn't in principle support rules to limit the risk of deep-pocketed people and interests buying access and influence – the kind that exist across most of the rest of the country?
But what the poll didn't measure is how strongly most voters feel about political financing, relative to other issues. By all appearances, Premier Christy Clark thinks the answer is not very strongly, at all. And she has no intention of giving the impression it's something they should care about by treating seriously the recent criticism of her party's fundraising habits.
That makes for quite a contrast with Ontario's Kathleen Wynne – and an interesting case study in different approaches to political-issues management.
Faced with political-financing controversies of her own – including reports of ministers spending much of their time trying to meet six-figure annual fundraising targets, and holding exclusive and expensive events with stakeholders to do so – Ms. Wynne has promised an overhaul of donation rules before the next election, including a corporate and union contributions ban. The private events, she promised, would immediately end.
If Ms. Wynne were herself deeply offended by the extent to which parties in Ontario actively solicit large amounts of money from people with vested interests in their policies, she presumably would have done something about it when she replaced Dalton McGuinty as premier three years ago – not made fundraising at least as much a part of her ministers' responsibilities as he did. Rather, her about-face seems to reflect a willingness to admit she or her government are wrong, when her instincts tell her a line has been crossed in terms of what the public will put up with.
Previously, that was most prominently on display in how she handled the controversy around the costly cancellation of two gas-fired power plants, which happened while Mr. McGuinty was premier and she was at his cabinet table. Unlike Mr. McGuinty, who among other defences pointed out that provincial opposition leaders had called for the cancellations, Ms. Wynne opted for outright contrition during the last Ontario election campaign. She did not have "permission" to defend the Liberal record on that file, one of her advisers explained at the time, because voters were too upset.
That raised eyebrows among some of the top backroom people around Mr. McGuinty before he left office. Their view is that agreeing with criticism on all but the most egregious ethics-related controversies shows weakness, emboldens opponents and legitimizes whatever the criticism is.
At least a couple of former McGuinty people inclined toward that viewpoint have since played very senior roles for Christy Clark. One is Don Guy, who directed Ms. Clark's 2013 election campaign, after previously running those of Mr. McGuinty. Another is Laura Miller, apparently on tap to run Ms. Clark's campaign in 2017, despite facing criminal charges back in Ontario related to alleged document destruction before Mr. McGuinty left office – which in itself says something about Ms. Clark's willingness to withstand criticism related to ethical issues.
Her response to fundraising concerns says more. When The Globe and Mail reported this spring that Ms. Clark attended fundraisers at which people paid at least $10,000 each to meet with her, she was dismissive toward obvious questions about why someone would pay for that access, arguing current disclosure rules are sufficient.
That was practically contrite, compared with her response to the revelation by The Globe this week that her party pays her an annual stipend of about $50,000 on top of her salary as premier in recognition of her role as leader, which notably includes fundraising.
Confronted with whether this represents a conflict of interest, her Liberals made a show of not taking the issue seriously, cracking jokes while defending the top-up on the basis she never pretended not to receive it.
Ms. Clark has occasionally been known to admit a mistake. When her government was reeling before the last election from the leak of a memo strategizing about using government resources to score "quick wins" with ethnic voters, she was plenty apologetic – albeit only when there was reportedly caucus unrest, after initially having one of her ministers read an apology for her.
But it's a fair bet that on political finances, her own opinion research tells her that such a last resort is nowhere near needed.
Not for a Premier who, known for being a superior retail politician with an iron streak, has generally seemed much less concerned with the means than the end.
Ms. Wynne, despite some evidence to the contrary, still wants to be seen as a politician who does things differently, the way she was initially billed. Similar questions about their integrity evidently mean different things to them and their brands, and the responses show it.