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.