Big money has been driven out of B.C. municipal politics. At least that was the boast in not one, but two, announcements by the Municipal Affairs Ministry in Victoria this past year.
But has it been?
The first was a civic campaign-finance reform introduced in October meant to ban corporate, union and out-of-province donations and limit individual donations to $1,200 for any party or candidate. The second was a regulation tweak to fix a loophole.
The Non-Partisan Association interpreted the reform to mean soliciting corporate donations during an election year was still permitted, so long as the money was used only for party operations and not campaign expenses. With this, Elections BC found no fault.
City opposition parties fumed, saying the NPA knowingly violated the spirit of the reforms. Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson said she was disappointed in the NPA’s behaviour, even though it technically followed the letter of her government’s poorly drafted law. Her tsk-tsk reaction seemed a touch naive. In politics, all parties try to gain maximum advantage. It’s the reason campaign reforms were needed in the first place. Counting on political fundraisers to play nice is like telling poker players not to bluff. It goes against their DNA.
To the NDP’s credit, it has gone a good way to curb the influx of huge political donations, some of which had crept into the five- or even six-figure range. (You may recall that single stratospheric donation of $960,000 from developer Rob Macdonald to the NPA in 2011.) And while former premier Christy Clark made noise during the previous campaign about the need for reform, she never rushed to do it. Provincial parties continued to rake in cash before the May election and the civic parties, likewise, collected what they could, unimpeded, as they prepared for the upcoming 2018 municipal races.
When the NDP formed government, it quickly passed laws limiting provincial and municipal campaign contributions, but in its haste, the civic loophole was missed. The fix states money raised by civic parties from corporations, unions or other big donors for operating costs can only be spent outside the election-year period (Jan. 1 to Oct. 20 in 2018). That means any money spent during that period must come from small donors.
The move to reduce donations and election spending has broad appeal with voters who have watched municipal campaign spending rise ever higher. Election spending by Vision Vancouver tipped the $3-million mark in 2014, outstripping the highest civic election campaign costs in Toronto. Vancouver’s second-place NPA spent $2.1-million.
There are all kinds of problems associated with political parties accepting huge whacks of cash from people whose livelihoods turn on the city’s decisions. How could Vision be expected to look critically at staff wages, given that it accepted $226,000 in donations from the Canadian Union of Public Employees locals in 2014? Similarly, how would an NPA government be able to snub a development application from Mr. Macdonald, of the $960,000 donation fame?
But even with the loophole fix, big money is still firmly entrenched in B.C. civic politics. The Local Elections Campaign Financing Act curtails fundraising efforts of civic parties in election years only.
That’s a bit like demanding your spouse be faithful only one quarter of the time: There are still no limits to what civic parties or electoral organizations do during the other three years. They aren’t even required to report donations in non-election years. Any party such as Vision, which, unlike the NPA, operates in off-election years, is free to accept whatever it can get from unions, developers or the odd millionaire. Under these rules, a clever party can use big donations to run off-year operations and individual contributions during campaigns.
The NDP has promised to review the legislation after the 2018 municipal elections. At that point, they should go back at it and do it right: Disallow big donations all year, every year, and while they’re at it, force every party to disclose who gave. Those with nothing to hide, have nothing to lose.