Paul Houle: COPE wants campaign spending controls put in place for this year’s election

What would you do with $5.3 million? Quit your job? Make some big gifts to your favourite relatives or charities? Travel the world or live a life of leisure?

Well, right now, $5.3 million is what is being spent in a single municipal election campaign in the city of Vancouver. This is what was spent in the 2011 municipal contest. And, we seem poised again for another orgy of “sky is the limit” spending in this election year of 2014.

How much money do we really need to spend just to have intelligent and informed campaign debates and elect one mayor, 10 city councillors, nine school trustees, and seven park commissioners?

What’s our provincial government doing about this out of control spending frenzy? Well, I (and the Coalition of Progressive Electors) would say that, right now, next to nothing.

COPE and representatives from other municipal groups met with Coralee Oakes, the minister of community, sport and cultural development, on January 14. Oakes is chairing a provincial review and overseeing the creation of draft legislation around municipal campaign financing.

The draft law so far seems to represent more tinkering with and bureaucratizing rules rather than significant and fundamental change.

Under questioning, Oakes stated that the provincial government basically has no interest in implementing spending limits or public financing (tax receipts and/or tax rebates) in time for this year’s municipal campaigns. It seems that it has been much too “complex” to work out by the spring session of the legislature.

Even worse, Oakes glowingly noted that the idea of moving to four-year municipal terms from the current three years is very much alive. You might have thought that the four-year term was dead for now. No such thing. Like the campy horror film Night of the Living Dead, the concept of the four-year term is alive, stalking the land, and presenting a potential menace to democracy at the municipal level.

COPE wants municipal politicians to be held accountable. A three-year term keeps our local elected representatives on a “short leash”. Without spending controls or public financing, potential four-year monopolies on power can present a particularly serious threat to the quality of life and housing affordability in a city like Vancouver—both for renters and buyers.

The thought of mostly developer-funded and -driven organizations, like Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), unfettered with any spending controls whatsoever, getting a four-year majority on city council is alarming and presents a situation of “double jeopardy” for the city.

Think of the damage that could be done in a city dominated for four solid years by a developer-supported Vision or NPA majority. There would be a loss of affordable housing. Heritage neighbourhoods like Grandview-Woodland could face widespread demolition to accommodate condo redevelopment. Average working people in the city more and more might have to seek more affordable housing in the suburbs and commute long distances to work in Vancouver.

The legendary American humorist Will Rogers once said that he never met a man he didn’t like. To paraphrase Rogers, I would say that Vision Vancouver has never met a developer they didn’t like. One of the primary duties of elected officials at the municipal level is to regulate property development. However, when organizations like Vision and the NPA receive unlimited donations from developers, the very interests that they are supposed to regulate end up determining their agenda. This is a clear conflict of interest.

While COPE has made a principled decision to refuse donations from developers (resulting in a loss of thousands of dollars to the organization), we urge the provincial government to establish provincially mandated campaign donation limits for all at the municipal level. Some have suggested federal and provincial campaign spending rules as a model. Others have pointed to provinces like Ontario as an example.

We also recognize that federal and provincial campaign rules regulate donations from labour unions as well as from business. While there is fierce debate about the relative influence of labour donations versus developer donations, in COPE, we do believe that developer donations are of critical concern because of the specific major role of elected city officials in regulating property development within their jurisdiction.

Whatever the model, COPE urges that this happen as an absolute priority in time for the 2014 municipal campaigns. We need a more level playing field where particularly renters and those on limited income can participate more equally.

With no explanation or justification, the provincial government, in its proposed campaign finance legislation, and in one terse sentence, completely rules out any kind of public financing of municipal elections: “Do not implement public financing (tax credits or rebates for campaign contributions or campaign expenses)” (see the white paper, page 26).

COPE argues that Canadians, including British Columbians, like the system of tax credits that exist at the federal and provincial electoral levels. Ontario uses a rebate system to refund part of the contributions that residents of that province make to municipal election campaigns.

A tax credit or rebate system could allow citizens of more modest means to make relatively affordable contributions to a municipal campaign. COPE also maintains that a tax credit or rebate could help to encourage involvement in municipal voting—an area that often has an even lower participation rate than at the provincial or federal levels.

In the 2011 municipal campaign, Vision Vancouver spent $2.22 million. COPE spent $361,000. Even the combined spending of just these two electoral groups indicates a malaise of uncontrolled spending. COPE urges that a level playing field be created with all municipal organizations having to adhere to pre-determined spending limits.

Developers should not have an out of proportion influence on city decision making because of an unlimited ability to donate money to campaigns.

Equally important, let’s encourage more participation by individual voters by offering them tax receipts or rebates for their donations to municipal political groups.

COPE advocates for renters, students, families, and others who are challenged in paying the bills and finding decent accommodation in Canada’s most expensive city. Their voice must be heard more loudly at election time.

COPE believes that we need reform now—not in 2017.

Comments (12) Add New Comment
G
There are plenty of developers that Vision don't like: those who don't contribute to the party or individual members. When one hears about discussions regarding potential heritage designation for a building "under threat" it is easy to determine what the outcome will be. Check the lists one can find online of those who have supported Vision, they are incomplete of course but have some utility. If the developer that owns the site contributed to Vision then the site will gain heritage designation, just like the Waldorf. Heritage designation is a windfall for developers and actually increases their profit, and part of that is kicked back to Vision or the individual members. Heritage buildings owned by non-Vision supporting developers are rarely saved.

The four-year election cycle would be dangerous, even the current three-year cycle is too long. The upcoming civic election is the final section of Vision's goal for the Robertson reign and majorities on Parks Board & Council are essential to enacting the last set of development policies intended to reward their key backers. The delay to the various neighbourhood plans that met with local opposition will continue until after the next election when those opinions have done their voting. Densification allowing 3.5 storey buildings within 100 meters of every Main Street and buildings of 6 storeys within 500 meters of a designated local shopping area is the reward for developers. That same plan is the real reason the Mayor has made Point Grey Road "residents only" so he and his friends, like Chip, don't run the risk of having neighbours "towering" across the road.

The single biggest reward to developers as far as "open" land goes will be the parts of Langara Golf Course within 500 metres of Cambie Street. The YMCA is going to be relocated to 57th & Cambie and a new Canada line stop will also be built. Towers will fill in the former golf course while the rest of it will be a park, allowing Vision to claim they actually increased parkland even as they decreased green space. The donations from developers and their undying gratitude will allow the key Vision figures to move into other pastures or try to qualify for a Provincial or Federal pension with a solid funding base.
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Schmidt
@G. Living in the Langara area, I find your scenario chilling, but entirely believable. Where would I find out more about this?
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RUK
Back to the article, I think this is a great idea. Level the playing field - let the best ideas win and not the loudest and most frequent.

It would take some doing, maybe, if you can't buy ad space. But news and general interest talk shows are still going to want candidates to talk and provide them with content. You could still knock on doors, deliver flyers, send out your social media, organize rallies and so on.

Frankly I think that campaign expenses are a fundamental evil and inherently anti-democratic - writ large, you have the obscenity that is the US senator having to come up with over ten MILLION dollars for a campaign - at that point, why even pretend it is democracy.
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BeTRIZ O.
good luck COPE.
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ODDS BODKIN
Strange bedfellows, Paul. Strange bedfellows.
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Anita Romaniuk
I dunno, Odds. The person in that photo who probably feels most like she's in a strange bed is Coralee Oakes. But she smiles and listens cause that's her job. Apparently taking action before this fall's election is not her job, even though it would be easy to do so for Vancouver and leave the other municipalities until next time, because Vancouver has its own Charter. C'mon, Coralee, let's get a move on!
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ODDS BODKIN
Yeah, Anita, but they're all smiling. (I notice she didn't even take her coat off for them.) If Vision is toppled by a coaltion of 'left', right, centre, green and the NPA takes over again, what then?
This happend a few elections ago and the NPA came up the middle. CUPE lost its 9 day fortnight and there was a protacted and unecessary strike.
I'm no Visionista, but if COPE is endeavouring to creat the 'subjective' conditions for whatever reason, press on. Just sayin'
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Anita Romaniuk
Hello again Odds. I don't see this situation as being the same as in 2005. At that time, there was only the NPA on the right. This time around, we also have the Cedar Party on the right, possibly Vancouver First (taking their name from Surrey First), which is basically a splinter group of disgruntled NPAers, and the New Team, which is somewhere between right and centre, all of which have expressed intent to run candidates, and all of which potentially take votes away from the NPA. Although they might win few if any seats on Council, they will act as vote-splitters on the right and make it much more difficult for the NPA to get elected and form a majority. The election in 2005 was close for Council, with the NPA only electing 5 plus the mayor, Vision electing 4, and COPE 1. The NPA today is no stronger and possibly weaker than they were back on 2005, and faces much more vote-split off than they did back then.
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ODDS BODKIN
Thanks Anita, for your explanation of COPE's strategy. It may well be successful on getting COPE some seats on Council etc...However, it also appears to be a variation of the old dictum 'the enemy of my enemy is my.....' Be nice if COPE had the troops, but when I, a thirty-year COPE supporter, see the pronouncements and actions of some of the 'Mainlanders', I have some concerns. And when Jonathan Baker (William F. Buckley lite, very lite) lauding Harry Rankin on these very pages, I wonder who is using who?
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miranda da costa diaz
I come from a background where coalitions are quite common and where they are often in government. It really concerns me that the coalition of the left, and that is COPE, seems to be splitting up even after it elected an independent group as its new executive. This group said it wanted to get back to the roots of COPE and to work hard to have residents' voices heard at city hall and to get going on really affordable housing and to stop the developers' ruining (and ruling) of the city. Now I have heard that there are only 7 people left out of 12 on the COPE executive. This is not good news. How is COPE going to get candidates and run an effective campaign when its own executive seems to be falling apart? I think this problem needs to be solved no matter what happens with the question of campaign financing, which of course has always been totally unfair. With its leaders all over the place and then deserting it, how can COPE be looked up to as a future city government? This is a really worrying scene.
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p lg
I commented to Jim Green once that I thought Vision Vancouver reminded me of the Richard Daley administration in Chicago. He took that as a compliment. Enough said.
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Lee L
>However, when organizations like Vision and the NPA receive unlimited donations from developers, the very interests that they are supposed to regulate end up determining their agenda>

Please lets not forget the funding Vision receives from outside our country (Tides for example) for that needs to be the FIRST spending that is made illegal and the recipients of such monies prosecuted.


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