Election finance in B.C. needs strong independent oversight

The recent admission by the B.C. NDP that more than a dozen members of its senior campaign staff have been supported financially by the United Steelworkers Union brings home the messy reality of how campaigns are financed.

It also reveals how hard it would be to police these campaigns even if union and corporate donations were banned from our provincial and local government elections.

For as long as there have been election campaigns in our province, labour unions have arranged for the secondment of employees to work — with pay — on political campaigns. Since there are 87 provincial ridings in British Columbia, you can surmise that almost every one of them involve some level of campaign coordination or staffing by union supporters.

The fact that labour groups work on election campaigns is no secret. What the value of that work, and the coordination of voter lists and advertising, tallies up to is much harder to estimate, however.

This is why, provincially at least, the most vocal champions for removing union and corporate contributions are those who usually benefit from a deep pool of campaign workers providing “in-kind” contributions.

In recent months, some political observers have thrown around the expression “the Wild West” to describe provincial election financing. In fact, the term was originally applied a few years back to local government election fundraising, where the rules have been considerably looser.

In the City of Vancouver, we have seen some of the most eye-popping examples of election campaign financing gone wild. In 2005, an Internet gambling maven named John Lefebvre forked over a personal donation of $170,000 to the nascent Vision Vancouver party led by the late Jim Green.

Until then, it was believed to be the largest personal donation ever in Vancouver politics. An NPA supporter — developer Rob Macdonald — would later top that amount several times over after the 2011 campaign, personally contributing $900,000.

In an ironic twist, Macdonald had hired Green to work for him when the latter lost his bid for mayor.

As a result of reforms in the B.C. Local Elections Campaign Financing Act, the responsibility for overseeing election financing for our municipal governments has been shifted over to Elections B.C.

On the face of it, this was a good move. But problems still exist.

For example, the robust records for Vancouver’s series of elections going as far back to the early 1990s have disappeared from the city’s website. The Elections B.C. website only has searchable records for the 2014 election.

Whereas, you once could easily find a scanned copy of all the contributors and the amounts they gave, today, you have to enter a name into their database search in hopes you will find it.

It is a significant setback to Vancouver’s once transparent process for revealing donors.

Another shortcoming of the new rules is the fact that campaign spending limits (which will only be posted next spring for the 2018 municipal elections) apply only to the final 30 days before election day. In other words, any candidate or elector organization can spend with complete abandon before the 30-day cutoff and still play by the rules.

To be clear, election campaigns need plenty of money to run them. And thankfully, taxpayers are not on the hook for funding campaigns here as they are in some jurisdictions.

What B.C. lacks, however, is an independent watchdog to set the ground rules for all elections. Elections B.C. does a fine job of coordinating our election cycles, registering candidates, and enforcing the rules.

It is not equipped, however, to regulate the sometimes murky world of election campaign financing. As a result, public trust in our election process — which is arguably among the world’s best — is being undermined.

In 2014, Vision Vancouver spent the most money ever on a municipal election campaign in B.C. — a whopping $3.4 million — outspending their NPA opponents by more than $1 million.

Both parties are on the record decrying “big money” in politics, yet neither side is willing to challenge the other to agree to voluntary spending limits that — and this is important —include in-kind donations of labour and voter lists.

With the attention campaign financing is now getting from the media, I predict the public trust will diminish further before the 2018 municipal elections unless changes are made.

– Originally published by Vancouver Courier