If the millions of dollars that exchanged hands during Vancouver’s recent local elections caused you concern, you have until December 5 to submit feedback regarding pending campaign expense limits.
In the recent 2014 Vancouver election, Vision Vancouver received contributions of more than $2.25 million by October 31, including $1.4 million from corporations and more than $320,000 from unions. The Non-Partisan Association raised more than $2.1 million in contributions by November 4, including a $360,000 donation from a single corporation.
Over the last decade, the City of Vancouver has repeatedly asked the province to reform campaign finance rules for municipal elections. The most recent request included a call for limits to contributions and expenses (including a ban on corporate and union donations), regular disclosure of financing (which would expose “dark money” received or spent outside of election years), tax receipts for donations, and more flexibility for the City of Vancouver to choose its own election rules.
The B.C. government’s interest in reforming local elections began in 2009, when then-premier Gordon Campbell created the Local Government Elections Task Force. After holding province-wide consultation, a report was presented in May 2010 that contained 31 recommendations. Unfortunately for the City of Vancouver, most of its campaign finance reform requests were rejected by the task force’s report.
The bulk of the changes that the task force report did recommend, including a ban on anonymous campaign donations, were implemented in time for the 2014 local elections held last week. Expense limits, however, will not be introduced until the 2018 local elections.
An initial round of consultation specifically regarding expense limits concluded in January 2014, and a summary report was published this past May.
On October 9, the B.C. government created the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits, which is currently seeking ideas from the public regarding the “principles” of expense limits. The provincial government aims to table legislation in spring 2015.
A subsequent phase of consultation will deal with expense limit amounts. Recommendations about that topic will be presented to the legislature by no later than June 12, 2015.
The provincial committee held two public hearings in Vancouver earlier this month regarding expense limit principles. Presenters included representatives from Vision (councillor Andrea Reimer), Green party, COPE, and Cedar party (then-council candidate Nicholas Chernen). The Non-Partisan Association did not make a presentation.
The committee’s formation was announced just last month (on October 9), and it was initially instructed to present its recommendations regarding expense limit principles to the legislature no more than seven weeks later (by November 27). This short timeframe, which was to include public hearings and deliberations, generated significant criticism—especially because the Vancouver hearings were held during the recent local election campaign, when most people involved in local politics are extremely busy. Several of the presenters were not aware of the hearings until the week they were held, and some mentioned that they did not have time to prepare a suitable presentation. Earlier, in October, IntegrityBC issued a media release condemning the “rushed” consultation process.
The submission deadline has since been pushed back to December 5, and an additional public hearing will be held in Surrey on Saturday, November 29, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (location to be announced).
If you would like to see the murky money of municipal elections reined in, this is a rare opportunity to formally express your viewpoint. The committee is particularly keen to hear your ideas about the “principles” of expense limits—for example, whether there should be different rules for mayor, councillors, and school trustees (and in Vancouver’s case, park commissioners).
The current consultation is also a good opportunity for people to express support for contribution limits and an end to corporate and union donations—despite that the Local Government Elections Task Force in 2010 ruled out introducing contribution limits and a ban on corporate and union donations, and despite that the scope of current consultation is restricted to expense limit “principles”.
Why is this? First, the B.C. NDP is in favour of banning corporate and union donations from provincial elections, and their MLAs involved with the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits recently entertained the idea of such restrictions at the municipal level when public hearing presenters mentioned them. In addition, the summary report of last winter’s consultation, which was only supposed to discuss expense limits, noted that some participants expressed a desire for contribution limits (including a corporate/union donation ban).
It is important for local democracy in British Columbia to be a contest of governance ideas—a meritocratic policy discussion—rather than a messaging battle grossly dominated by the best fundraisers. Limits on how much money people can donate, as well as an end to corporate and union contributions, would provide greater financial equality between candidates and help to end the real or perceived issue of influence peddling in municipal government.