On Monday, the British Columbia government introduced new legislation that proposes to ban corporate, union and foreign donations in a move that will dramatically change B.C.’s political landscape and bring the province in line with other Canadian jurisdictions.
“This legislation will make sure 2017 was the last big-money election in our province,” said Attorney General David Eby. “The days of limitless donations, a lack of transparency and foreign and corporate influence over our elections are history.”
Here are your Top 5 questions on the ban answered:
1) What will be different now?
Everything. This is probably the most game-changing moment in B.C. politics in living memory. Up until now, corporations and unions could donate as much money as they wanted to B.C. political parties, even though such donations are banned federally and in most provinces.
Individuals anywhere in the world were also allowed to give unlimited amounts of dough to B.C. politicians, but not any more. Now donations will be limited to B.C. residents, with a limit of $1,200 a year — the second-lowest limit in Canada behind Quebec.
“Any time you change a system that places no limitations on donations to a system that does, you’re going to see big, big changes,” University of British Columbia political scientists Max Cameron told DeSmog Canada.
“I think this is going to change how parties work, how campaigns work and change our system to make it more attentive to the preference of ordinary voters.”
Political parties will also have to publicly report all fundraisers attended by party leaders, cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. And those fancy-pants dinners can no longer come at a ticket price of $10,000 (a la Christy Clark). Fundraisers at private residences are still allowed, but tickets can be sold for a max of $100.
2) When will the changes apply?
Well, first the bill needs to pass, but that’s very likely because it’s the product of the agreement between the Green Party and the NDP and together they have enough seats to win a vote in the legislature.
The changes will then apply retroactively to the date of the last election, which means parties won't be able to spend any donations they’ve received from corporations and unions since May 9 during the next election. That’s going to come as a big blow to the BC Liberals who deposited $1 million in donations just three days after the last election.
Seven of the 10 largest donations came from developers. Other donors included Chevron Canada, Encana and Enbridge. Once this bill is passed, those donations will not be allowed to be used in future elections.
3) Why is this such a big deal?
Basically, up until now anyone with deep pockets has been able to buy access to B.C. politicians. The latest example is how a bunch of oil and gas companies re-wrote B.C.’s so-called climate plan in a Calgary boardroom.
Before that there was the case of Imperial Metals, the company responsible for the Mount Polley mine disaster. Imperial was a major donor to the BC Liberal party and was never charged or fined for the disaster.
Many British Columbians have also been concerned that the NDP is too beholden to unions because of large donations to the party. Now that’s all about to come to a stop.
4) So how will political parties fund election campaigns?
Well, first of all, campaign spending limits have been decreased by about 25 per cent, so less money will be spent overall in elections. For instance, candidates used to be able to spend about $78,000 per riding, but that limit is now reduced to $58,000.
Still, elections cost money, so where will that come from? The bill introduced a plan for a per-vote subsidy intended to assist in transitioning to the new rules. The move mirrors a similar temporary transition plan at the federal level but was not expected to form a part of the NDP’s electoral reform plan.
The subsidies are expected to cost B.C. taxpayers an estimated $27.5 million over the next four years.
According to the bill, a special legislative committee will evaluate the annual allowances to parties and determine if changes should be made. If no amendments are made to the bill once it is put into place, it means an expiration of allowances will take place in 2022.
Some reimbursements for election expenses will remain in place permanently.
While the BC Liberals have already stated publicly they will vote against the bill, saying the public should not pay parties directly, UBC political scientist Max Cameron says money for elections has to come from somewhere.
“We’re already publicly funding parties, but because it’s not visible, you don’t hear people being upset about it,” Cameron said. “Tax returns for political donations — that’s coming from the taxpayer, it’s a form of publicly subsidizing political parties.”
“Parties have to be funded from somewhere and I actually think political parties are providing a vital public service,” he said.
5) What about loopholes?
The government tried to get out ahead of the game by applying the restrictions to third-party election advertisers, who've taken advantage of campaign finance rules in other jurisdictions. The restrictions aim to prevent external organizations from becoming fundraising proxies, like Super PACS have in the U.S. However, just what constitutes a third-party advertiser has been the subject of some debate and a lack of clarity on this issue remains a controversy at the federal level.
Election fundraising rules are only ever as good as their watchdogs. In the last few decades, politicians have been caught spending beyond campaign limits, misreporting financials and violating conflict of interest rules.
Some people have raised concerns about the $1,200 limit, saying businesses and unions can funnel donations through executives, employees and their relatives.
In September 2016, it was discovered that between 2004 and 2011, executives of SNC Lavalin Group Inc. funnelled $118,000 in donations to the federal Liberals and Conservatives— $110,000 and $8,000, respectively — disguised as donations from individuals who worked at SNC or their family members.
Cameron said the $1,200 limit provides a good protective measure against circumventing the rules.
“With the cap as it is, I think it gets a lot harder to see the bundling of donations that we’ve seen elsewhere.”
Image: Green party leader Andrew Weaver and Premier John Horgan annouce campaign finance reform. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr