Money talks in B.C. politics

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      Political scientist Kennedy Stewart is certain that big money is going to do a lot of talking in the leadership race of the B.C. Liberal party.

      After all, B.C. Liberals will not only choose a fresh leader who will govern their corporate-friendly party. They’ll be crowning the next premier of B.C. without the benefit of fighting in a regular provincial election.

      The problem, according to Stewart, an associate professor at SFU’s school of public policy, is that ordinary British Columbians are unlikely to know who’s bankrolling whom and for how much until after the contest is over.

      “It’s a lot to do with the very minimal regulation we have on how money flows through the election process,” Stewart told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      Unlike on the federal scene, B.C.’s election law neither requires leadership candidates to make continuing disclosures about donations nor puts limits on contributions.

      “At all levels, provincial and local, we’re seen as a bit of a Wild West of politics,” Stewart said.

      Federal election law also mandates that only individuals can make contributions to political parties and leadership contestants.

      In B.C., corporations and labour unions can write cheques to provincial political players. During the campaign for the May 12, 2009, provincial election, the B.C. Liberal party received more than $9 million in contributions. More than half of that, $5.9 million, came from corporations.

      A federal party leadership candidate is also required to file six financial returns during and after the race. In B.C., a contestant is only obliged to file a financial report within 90 days after the leadership race.

      “We’re going to find out after the fact who backed whom,” Stewart said.

      Only Canadian citizens and permanent residents can make contributions at the federal level. Their donations are indexed to inflation, and limits are published in the government’s official newspaper, the Canada Gazette. The current cap is $1,100 to leadership candidates.

      In B.C. one can “give somebody a million dollars or $10 million”, Stewart noted.

      The Canada Elections Act also provides that leadership candidates must register with Elections Canada even before the actual contest period once they receive contributions for that purpose.

      It’s different in B.C. “Elections B.C. is not involved in the process, except for saying, after it’s all done, ”˜You have to turn over the records to us,’ ” Stewart pointed out.

      However, the lack of legislation providing more transparency in the financing of provincial party leadership contests shouldn’t stop the B.C. Liberals from adopting some features of the federal election law, the associate professor suggested.

      “Part of the reason why we’re having this race is that the public has lost trust in the Liberal government,” he said. “One way that they could start rebuilding the trust is to”¦raise the bar in terms of how transparent they make the process. Whether they follow Elections B.C. rules or some other rules, the public feels informed that they’ve been able to watch this, they’ve been able to see who backs whom and track the process all the way through; then, of course, the Liberals might go a long way to rebuilding trust in the party.”

      Stewart also recommended a couple of ways the party can level the playing field among candidates. One is to provide party members with information packages about the candidates and to pay for their websites.

      “Somebody like [Education Minister] George Abbott probably doesn’t have very deep pockets, or somebody like [Surrey mayor] Dianne Watts is an outsider,” he said. “To make it more fair, I think to counter [Health Minister] Kevin Falcon and [Public Safety Minister] Rich Coleman and those people who have quite deep pockets and big backers is for the party itself to distribute some of the information about the candidates.”

      B.C. Liberal spokesperson Chad Pederson said in a phone interview that the party’s executive will set out rules once it has determined the date of the leadership vote.

      Pederson also indicated that these may cover spending limits. Asked if the rules will provide for continuing disclosure of donors and their contributions, Pederson told the Straight: “Again, it’s going to be a decision of our party executive.

      “For us, we want to give every member an equal opportunity to participate in that process, to feel a part of that process, and to feel like there’s an open and transparent way to select the new leader,” Pederson added.

      According to UBC political-science professor Richard Johnston, transparency is always a good thing.

      “It is better when we know who’s paying for whom,” Johnston, director of the UBC-based Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, told the Straight in a phone interview. “It’s also generally better when the donation limits are low enough that the person has to get a broad base of support.”

      He also observed that B.C. politics has been a “total black box” wherein political parties are not so inclined to have their books under close scrutiny.

      According to the UBC professor, there is enormous public interest involved when those wanting to replace outgoing premier Gordon Campbell finally emerge with their intentions.

      “I think that citizens have an interest in the extent to which any candidate for leadership or potential premier of the province is financially beholden to large interests,” Johnston said. “The more transparent the process, I suspect, the less beholden anyone will be.”




      Nov 10, 2010 at 6:56am

      What else is new, although it would be nice to see who bought whom. This Leadership race is a sham, a joke playing out in front of us. Disgusting to say the least.


      Dec 3, 2010 at 11:06pm

      Let me get this straight, a foreign company can come in and donate so many millions to a right political party that it would be a miracle if a social party like the NDP ever gets elected. Something is not right here.