A (missed) chance to ban ‘big money’ in municipal politics

“This is something I’d like to see.” It was an innocent-sounding quote by former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, now a B.C. government minister responsible for matters relating to local government.

After speaking with Sullivan on Monday, Vancouver Courier reporter Mike Howell broke the news that the B.C. Liberals’ proposed ban corporate and union donations may also apply to municipal politics, in addition to provincial election campaigns.

Hon. Sam Sullivan

“I can’t say that will be in the throne speech, but it’s certainly something that I personally would like to see. We have to go step by step, but I think that would be a very positive direction.”

It is clear Sullivan has been given the OK by the Premier’s office to float this trial balloon before Thursday’s sitting of the B.C. Legislature. So what does it mean for B.C. voters?

On the same day B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver sent a strong signal he was preparing to delay the B.C. Liberals’ expected death sentence as government — if only for a short time — to allow the ban of corporate and union donations to be passed into law.

“Absolutely we would [vote for the bill],” Weaver told Postmedia News. “That would be very exciting.”

The explanation for the Greens’ zeal for banning big donors is simple — it creates a fairer playing field when campaigning alongside the other guys. By squeezing the money sources for the NDP or B.C. Libs, B.C. Greens feel they have a better shot at electing more MLAs.

Parties with close ties to labour groups such as Vision Vancouver or the New Democrats have long called for banning union and corporate donations. However, it is well known in political circles that these parties have an advantage in that they can count on unions to supply paid campaign staff, or have them coordinate voter databases and advertising strategies that are difficult to quantify.

This is important because each party is obligated to limit campaign spending within a cap set by Elections BC.

Parties on the centre-right do not have a similar ace up their sleeve as their union-friendly opponents. This goes a long way to explain the reticence of the B.C. Liberals to reform election finance rules.

B.C. Liberal organizers thought, perhaps naively, that releasing weekly donor disclosures leading up to Election Day would assuage the anger over “big money” politics. Ultimately, it had little or no effect at all on public opinion.

Now that the B.C. Liberals are on-side in wanting to ban corporate and union donations, they have no choice but to include local government elections too. In 2014, Vision and the NPA spent a staggering $6 million combined to fund their campaigns.

Undoubtedly, Vancouver-based developers, business operators, and even union leaders, weary of being shaken down for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars during each election cycle, are quietly cheering. The new rules could impact who takes power at city hall in 2018.

Ending corporate and union donations has unintended consequences the public should be wary of, however. It may lead to a growth in third party advertising and campaigning, not unlike the corrupting influence of “Super PACs” we see in the United States.

It is infinitely more difficult to track donations made to third parties, which will surely blossom as a consequence of the proposed election finance reforms.

There is already a preponderance of third party groups wishing to influence the outcomes of elections in B.C. and across Canada. The most egregious among them are organizations promoting “strategic” voting, and whose financial backers could be described as murky at best.

The funding behind many of these groups is from U.S. sources, funneled through Canadian charities and scrubbed of any evidence of the original source.

Though their grip on power in B.C. seems quite tenuous at the moment, the B.C. Liberals have an opportunity to set new rules that can limit the influence of third parties, and level the playing field for all parties.

Now let’s see if Vancouver’s former mayor can help our municipal elections move in a “positive direction.”

Originally published June 21st by Vancouver Courier Newspaper.


UPDATE (June 28): Legislation tabled by the BC Liberals at the opening of the session was voted down by the NDP and Green Party. While there are some who suggest that the Liberals’ bill is a benchmark for future legislation, I am doubtful that the BC NDP will support a bill that removes the abilities of 3rd parties and in-kind donations. No other media except Gary Mason in a recent commentary have discussed the importance of limiting contributions of 3rd parties, etc. and maintain that banning “union and corporate” donations will be sufficient. It will not.