Government to plug leaky election finance legislation

Legislation enacted by the B.C. government last fall to cut off “big money” from municipal election campaigns hit a bump in the road this month. Bill 15, also known as Local Elections Campaign Financing Amendment Act 2017, was earlier criticized for failing to address the influence of third parties.

Now it looks like the legislation will have to be amended if the recent statements of the minister in charge are an indication. The apparent glitch in the legislation has even caught the attention of the opposition B.C. Liberals, who have already tabled their own amendment to the act.

Selina Robinson, the B.C. government minister responsible for the legislation, responded to the Vancouver Courier last week, stating: “We have staff looking into what changes may be needed to ensure that we are able to give British Columbians the fair elections they want, free of the influence of donors with deep pockets.”

Then on Monday, opposition MLA Todd Stone got the jump on government by tabling his own private member’s bill. His bill is called the Local Election Campaign Financing Amendment Act, 2018.

“The Local Election Campaign Financing Act refers to ‘a campaign contribution,’ which was already defined in the act as ‘funds exclusively for campaign use,’” commented Stone. “This confusion has caused Elections B.C. to recently determine that contributions from unions and corporations will continue to be allowed and that there are no contribution limits on money raised for operations at the municipal level, basically, for anything that’s not a direct campaign expense.”

He added, “This bill would remove this confusion and bring the Local Election Campaign Financing Act in line with the provincial campaign finance legislation.”

So why is there now so much “confusion” over what constitutes a campaign donation in municipal politics?

Last November, I wrote that Bill 15 was an invitation to allow outside groups to engage in influencing municipal election without ever having to declare any contributions at all. This phenomenon is referred to by the sinister sounding expression “dark money.”

Whatever you think of the old way of funding election campaigns — through union and corporate donations as well as individuals — at least you could track the funding back to the source. When so-called dark money enters politics, the public is, well, left in the dark.

We know money flows into election campaigns like water. The new regulations may slow those dollars from flowing in, but cash could still pour into third-party groups like pucks on a lousy goaltender.

When it comes to these new rules governing election finance, NPA councillor George Affleck is not mincing words, tweeting out the Act has “flaws,” not loopholes. He claims that the legislation discriminates against elector organizations in that it limits the amount of donations per candidate.

Vision Vancouver’s Andrea Reimer was more charitable, calling holes in the legislation that permit societies unlimited fundraising to cover operations expenses “an honest mistake.”

While they are disagreeing publicly, behind the scenes there was a unique accord between the NPA, Vision and the Vancouver Greens when it came to concerns about the original legislation.

In a letter to Minister Robinson dated Nov. 20, 2017 and co-signed by Affleck, Reimer and Adriane Carr, the trio recommended changes to the original bill. The letter says our province has a “long, proud history” of campaigns involving elector organizations.

Their letter specifically recommends donations be the same for candidates whether they run as independents or in an elector organization. Affleck spelled out why in a tweet last week.

“To raise $4 million a party needs 3,333 donors at $1,200. 27 independent as unofficial slate need 124 donors w/ $1,200 to each = $4 million.”

Using Affleck’s math, it would appear the current legislation, whether intentionally or not, discriminates against candidates who run with an elector organization. It also might explain, he suggests, why longtime Vision Vancouver insiders Shauna Sylvester and Sarah Blyth have recently declared “independent” runs for office.

Give credit to the B.C. government for their efforts so far. It is not their fault that getting big bucks out of local elections is like playing a game of whack-a-mole.

Originally published in Vancouver Courier newspaper.