Let's get this out of the way right off the top: It is great news that British Columbia's NDP government has tabled legislation that will bring law and order to the province's legendary political-fundraising anarchy.
No longer will corporations and unions be able to donate unlimited amounts, often well into five figures, to political parties. No longer will the governing party blithely trade intimate access to the premier and cabinet ministers for generous donations from companies doing business with the government, or which stand to benefit financially from a new law or policy change.
The Wild West has been tamed! Although, to be fair to the real Wild West outlaws of yore, they at least had codes of honour and fair play. The long-governing Liberal Party never burdened itself with such quaint notions, but now it has been shoved over to the Opposition benches and can no longer impose its lack of fundraising ethics on the rest of the province.
With the NDP in charge and backed by the Green Party, the new government is free to bring a basic level of morality to fundraising, and to eliminate the perception that the province's political parties work not for those who vote for them, but for those who pay them.
Under the proposed bill, corporations and unions will be banned from donating to political parties; so will anyone living outside of the province. The maximum annual donation that an individual B.C. resident can give to a party, its riding associations, nomination contestants and candidates will be $1,200 in 2018. It will be indexed to inflation every year after that.
That's a low number compared to the rest of the country. At the federal level, donors can give $1,550 to each party and a separate total of $1,550 to each party's riding associations, nomination contestants and candidates in non-election years – a total of $3,100. In Ontario, the limit is $1,200 to each party and $1,200 to its riding associations – $2,400 in all.
If the NDP bill passes, only Quebec will have a lower individual limit. There, the maximum annual donation is just $100.
The NDP bill represents a massive change in B.C.'s political culture. It is as welcome as it is overdue. It does, however, come with one expensive catch.
The NDP government, after promising to consult on the matter, has gone ahead and unilaterally included in its legislation a hefty taxpayer subsidy for political parties.
The subsidy starts at $2.50 per vote received in the election last May, and drops each year for five years. In 2022, when the subsidy will be $1.75 per vote received, a committee will review the payments and decide whether or not to continue them.
Ontario brought in a similar subsidy when it reformed its political fundraising laws in 2016. So did the federal government in 2004, when the Chrétien government set limits on donations. Those federal subsidies, which cost millions of dollars, lasted until the Harper government began to eliminate them in 2012.
These subsidies were all originally intended as transitional measures, designed to wean political parties off of excessively high donation limits. But no one knows how long the Ontario and B.C. subsidies will go on for. They may be dropped after five years. Or they may roll on and on.
Either way, they are a cop-out. Too many Canadian political parties have long operated on the belief that there are only two ways they can raise money – through unethically large donations, or by feeding from government coffers.
This is absurd, and contrary to existing evidence. Federal parties somehow survived an election, and the two years since, without public subsidy. Why are the governments of two of the wealthiest provinces – Ontario and B.C. – insisting on taking the easy route? Especially when B.C. parties will also now be eligible for reimbursement of up to half of their campaign expenses in voting years?
Canada's fundraising laws are getting better, but they remain far from perfect. A few provinces and territories still have no limits on donations, or very high limits, or still allow contributions from corporations and unions. Even in jurisdictions that have brought in reforms, abuses persist. The Trudeau government was caught selling exclusive access to cabinet ministers in 2016, and had to promise to end the practice.
The simplest solution is to set a low individual donation limit – $100, as in Quebec – ban union and corporate money, reimburse some campaign expenses, and leave it at that.
If you think that's too harsh, then look at the B.C. NDP Party. In the May election, it got almost 800,000 votes. If 10 per cent of those voters were talked into donating $100, that's $8-million. If just one in 25 gave that amount, that's $3.2-million.
If a party can't get by on that kind of cash, it's not the public's problem. Go to work, raise your own money, and leave taxpayers out of it.