Nothing gets the blood boiling faster than the feeling “big money” is buying elections. This misguided impression drove politicians at the federal level to create campaign-finance restrictions and taxpayer funding for themselves and their political parties. Now, the British Columbia government is reviewing the local government election process and may impose some of those same restrictions and obligations here. Voters may be losing confidence in the local election process, but greater transparency through effective campaign-finance disclosure—not more restrictions and political pork—is what will restore it.
Currently, there are no limits on, or how much, a person or group can contribute financially to a candidate or party in British Columbia. Also, at the municipal level, candidates get no taxpayer funding at all. However the local government lobby group, the Union of B.C. Municipalities, wants to change all that. It wants to limit free-will campaign contributions from individuals and organizations and divert taxpayers’ money to local politicians. But this will likely lead to similar problems as those at the federal level. The last thing property taxpayers need is to be stuck with the political status quo and be forced to fund local politicians holding views they may disagree with.
At the federal level, unions and corporations aren’t permitted to contribute to election campaigns and individuals are restricted to donations no larger than $1,100. On the surface, this would appear to take away the influence of “big money”. However, what it really does is keep the current bunch in power. That’s because sitting federal politicians not only get $1.99 per vote per year for their political parties, but also get 60 percent of their election expenses reimbursed. New parties or candidates don’t get those subsidies, so if their ability to fundraise is restricted, they are less able to get their message out. If we are worried about “big money” buying elections, we should encourage more campaign spending, not more pork for politicians.
More to the point, there is no evidence that elections can be bought. For example, during the 2008 municipal election, Vancouver mayoralty candidate Peter Ladner, who spent $244,073 on his campaign, more than any other mayoralty candidate, lost. Meanwhile, Pitt Meadows city council candidate Gwen O’Connell, who spent $319, less than any other candidate, won. It takes much more than money to win an election.
But in addition to limiting contributions, UBCM wants make local election contributions tax deductible as they are at the federal and provincial levels. This is a bad idea. It will cost taxpayers more and, anyway, political parties aren’t welfare cases. If they put out a platform people like, supporters will voluntarily dig into their pockets and donate. Pork for politicians takes away the need to connect with people and makes politicians less, not more, accountable to the people they supposedly represent.
Besides, is it right that politicians and political parties compete with charities for donations?
If we are worried about “big money” buying elections, then better campaign-finance disclosure is the way to increase the confidence in the system, not restrictions, and certainly not more pork for politicians. One way to do this is to disclose all contributions greater than $300, five days before election day, by posting them on the Internet. That way, voters can see whether “big money” has made a massive contribution to a candidate and make their voting decision accordingly. Right now, voters can’t see who donated until after the election. But to make the right voting decision, voters must know who may be influencing a candidate before election day, not after.
The answer to the perceived problems with campaign finance is not more campaign-finance regulations but the right regulations. Voters need greater transparency and that means better disclosure. There are not, nor should there be, limits on campaign contributions or pork for politicians at the local level in B.C.
Maureen Bader is the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.