Martyn Brown: B.C. voters must put campaign finance reform on front burner in upcoming election
These days everyone’s abuzz about the role of big money in “British Columbia: The Wild West of Canadian Political Cash”, as the New York Times has recently branded our province.
Or at least you might think so, judging from the media interest and attention to the subject.
Witness Gordon Hoekstra’s excellent two-part exposé in this week’s Vancouver Sun. Or Nancy Macdonald’s damning critique of “B.C.’s financing free-for-all” in last weekend’s Maclean’s.
For years, B.C.’s opposition parties, Democracy Watch, and Integrity BC have all been banging the drum for campaign finance reform, loudly cheered on by the echo chambers of social media.
No one has argued more forcefully and passionately to unstack B.C.’s crooked deck of “pay-to-play” politics than the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason.
He has been a pit bull in condemning the “cash-for-access” fundraisers that both of B.C.’s main parties have used to raise money—events that he and others also assailed for helping to finance the $50,000 annual “stipend” paid from party coffers that Christy Clark and her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, had both received on top of their $193,000 government salary.
The political heat created by that “distraction”—as the premier dismissed it—finally got so great that Clark was obliged to give up her party top-up salary. But she remains fundamentally resistant to campaign finance reform.
Truth is, despite all of the bad press the shady business of political finance has generated for Christy Clark and her government, it is hardly a burning issue for most British Columbians. At least, not yet.
And the B.C. Liberals are literally banking on that. Hence their stubborn refusal to ban corporate and union donations, as the opposition parties and others have long advocated and will again propose to do this legislative session.
Clark’s “Gliberals” seem convinced that the voters they are targeting won’t give a hoot about their refusal to right the party finance system that is so demonstrably wrong.
It’s always the economy, stupid. And fear of the NDP. Period.
The B.C. Liberals have no interest in giving up the house advantage that has always so dramatically tipped the odds of winning each election in their favour.
Brown admits he turned a blind eye in the past
Count me among those who would like to change that, for reasons I’ll try to amplify in adding my voice to those who have been calling for campaign finance reform.
In my next piece in the Straight I will outline the case for change, reflecting on my own assailable role in preserving the status quo.
As a principal architect of the B.C. Liberals’ first three winning election platforms and as Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, I was easily as guilty as any in turning a blind eye and deaf ears to those calling for needed change.
When you are playing with a deck that is so egregiously stacked in favour of your governing party and that has worked so well to keep you in power, it’s too easy to hang on to to what you’ve got.
When you are outgunning your chief political rivals by a ratio of over 5:1 in fundraising from large donors, and you are content in the smug assumption that campaign finance reform is not a material ballot issue for most voters, it’s hard not to cling to your house advantage.
When you are above all, a political animal, and every fibre in your being tells you not to gamble your proven formula for political success on a fool’s quest for fair play at your own expense, you are not inclined to give up your crooked deck.
Indeed, I well understand where Premier Clark and her colleagues are coming from, which hardly makes it right.
When you are in cabinet and can legally sell access for cash as a partisan fundraising tactic that does not violate the Members’ Conflict of Interest Act, no one can seriously compete with you in raising money.
Because you alone control the government purse strings. You alone control the government’s policies, regulations, and legislative agenda.
And you are uniquely positioned to extract untold sums from enthusiastic supporters and grudging givers alike, to buy power with vast amounts of money and formidable campaign war chests of which your political competitors can only dream.
Donors aren't always self-serving
Though my arguments for changing that reality largely mirror many of the reasons that others have advanced for campaign finance reform, I do have a slightly different perspective that might contribute to the debate.
It starts from the premise that the vast majority of those making contributions to political parties, regardless of size, are not the nefarious, entirely self-serving actors they are typically made out to be, even if some them are.
Rather, in my experience, they are mostly stellar individuals who care deeply about their province and about the ideologies and broad policy approaches that they feel are best for B.C. And yes, also for their companies and unions.
Many of the individuals whose names are now being necessarily publicized in shedding new light on the nature and extent of B.C.’s largest political donors are also some of our province’s most oustanding philanthropists.
Ironically, it is at least partly due to the cozy relationships they established with successive governments, including through their political largesse, that they have been so effective in raising much-needed funds for so many laudable charitable causes.
They are typically volunteers of the first order who have done more than most to champion causes in dire need of public attention, funding, and support.
Causes like the B.C. Children's Hospital, Alzeheimer’s research, arts funding, literacy initiatives, autism support, and much, much more.
This, I know, firsthand from my experiences writing throne speeches, participating in cabinet and treasury board meetings, attending meetings with the premier and/or others, and talking to those who give so much of themselves to advance those worthy causes in the purely public interest.
Nevertheless, the way in which money is raised and given in politics and the lack of sensible restrictions and regulations on those direct and indirect donations are uniquely open to abuse, whether intended or not.
They unwittingly entrench systemic consequences that are unhealthy at minimum and are at times downright dirty.
Those negative consequences are rooted in the nature of the ongoing relationships and adversarial attitudes fostered by B.C.’s no-hold-barred party finance system.
In my third installment, I’ll suggest a suite of measures that might bring about that needed reform.
Many of them have long been embraced by the NDP, the Green party, and advocacy groups.
Others are less obvious and should be supported by all parties as part of a more comprehensive platform for campaign finance reform.
It’s not rocket science. The blueprint for change that other jurisdictions have adopted is easily actionable with a little political will.
In fact, most of the needed changes could be passed into law before the provincial election if the B.C. Liberals miraculously had a “come-to-Jesus” moment that allowed them to admit the increasingly untenable error of their ways.
Premier does what's best for her party
As the legislature resumed sitting this Valentine’s Day, there’s no love in Christy Clark’s capital for undoing her party’s capital advantage.
The premier’s distaste for Victoria’s “sick culture” that she so famously derided in 2012 only goes so far.
It works all too well for her team when the big dollars tumble forth in unlimited and unchecked fashion.
She’s good with the sick status quo if the bucks stop with her party.
And she’s fine with passing the buck on fixing B.C.’s manifestly iniquitous campaign finance system as long as it doesn’t cost her too much where it really matters: at the ballot box.
The good news is that the political media now has its sights firmly fixed on the issue. It now has her government in its crosshairs.
The mainstream media’s guns are locked and loaded. It now seems intent on creating a political firestorm that Premier Clark won’t be able to easily duck.
It’s going to get a lot noisier when her government tables its vaunted legislation to improve the transparency and timeliness of political donations.
No doubt, mandatory “real-time reporting” of political donations within 10 business days following each deposit is a small step in the right direction.
It’s also good that the B.C. Liberals are now voluntarily releasing the names of all donors, with no minimum amount for disclosure.
It’s certainly better than the current annual reporting requirement that obliges all parties to file their financial reports and political contributions with a value greater than $250 for each calendar year passed to Elections B.C. by March 31.
But it misses the point.
It will do nothing to fundamentally fix an unregulated campaign finance system that is antiquated, secretive, coercive, democratically subversive, and demonstrably unfair.
It will do nothing to correct a system that is rife with conflict, dangerously beholden to big money, and wildly out-of-step with the rules and practices that now govern campaign finance activities elsewhere in Canada.
It won’t do a thing to limit the size of donations, to cut the parties’ reliance on large donors, or to regulate the ethical conduct of politicians, political staffers, and others who solicit donations.
It won’t allow voters to identify those who make political contributions at fundraising functions.
Perhaps most egregiously, the B.C. Liberals’ idea of “transparency” will do nothing to shine a light on what is arguably the most dangerous trend in Western democracies.
Namely, the increasing reliance on so-called “dark money” that is driving political donations ever deeper into the utterly unaccountable, untraceable, and anonymous shadows of American-style “super PACs” (secretive “political action committees”).
Paradoxically, the Clark government’s new “transparency” rules may well serve to send many of its large donors scurrying into the darkness to avoid media scrutiny and unwanted political attention.
Inevitably, even more money will be funnelled into those faceless so-called “citizens’ organizations” that are in fact surrogates for political parties.
They typically have no members whatsoever and are only shell entities used to mask the identity of the big-monied interests that fund them. Their only interest is to influence elections and government policies without any requirement whatsoever for transparency.
No matter. The public is getting wise to how their democratic choices are being unfairly influenced and manipulated by an outmoded campaign finance system that is open to abuse, detrimental to their democracy, and desperately in need of reform.
Voters can change the system
This election is the best opportunity that British Columbians have ever had to fix that problem, if they can only first be persuaded that it’s an issue of material consequence.
The Clark government’s refusal to do the right thing in reforming B.C.’s glaringly inappropriate system should be a major election issue.
If nothing else, it should serve to inform the broader growing narrative about the need for change, fuelled by the B.C. Liberals’ arrogance of power after 16 years in office.
It is illustrative of Premier Clark’s flawed character that she always, always puts her party’s political interests ahead of the public interest.
The time is ripe to change that by keeping the pressure on her government to play fair.
If the public screams loud enough and long enough for new rules that rebalance B.C.’s tilted campaign finance regime, the B.C. Liberals might at last be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
They might be forced to fix our flawed system as every other jurisdiction in Canada has previously seen fit to do.
Or perhaps more appropriately, the public might punish the B.C. Liberals at the polls on May 9 for failing their duty for so long, by electing a new government to replace them.