Martyn Brown: My case for campaign finance reform in British Columbia
Why should you care about campaign finance reform in British Columbia?
That is the subject of this exceptionally lengthy discourse, the second in a three-part series on the topic. The final installment will speak to how that needed change might be accomplished.
Basically, my argument can be summarized in the following seven points:
1. Large donors have too much influence on government.
2. The current system is coercive.
3. The B.C. Liberals have an unfair funding advantage.
4. The system lacks transparency.
5. “Dark money” is a growing problem.
6. The system is too expensive and wasteful.
7. The conflict of interest regime is ethically blind.
That’s the Coles Notes version. Hardly earth-shattering. But nonetheless true.
For casual readers with only a passing interest in the subject, it is likely all you care or need to know. End of story.
For those who have the time and inclination to consider each of those arguments in much greater depth, read on. I’ll try to make it worth your considerable effort. But be forewarned, each of this dissertation’s eight discrete segments is easily the equivalent of a long column. They are offered as a comprehensive critique that you likely won’t want to read on your smart phone, or perhaps even all in one sitting. Indeed, this exposition is only intended for those who really want to delve into this issue. Such as students of politics, committed politicos, or candidates for public office who just really “give a damn” about changing B.C.’s deeply flawed campaign finance regime.
Kudos to the Straight for caring enough to help inform that debate by affording me the bandwidth to make my case for campaign finance reform.
You think the system stinks? Believe me, it does. Including for those mostly well-meaning donors whose names and enterprises are being unfairly maligned by dint of the suspicions their sizable contributions inevitably arouse. It’s time we leveled the playing field for all parties—and more importantly, for all citizens—to afford all parties and all candidates a fair shot at competing to serve in the public interest.
It’s time we established a principled foundation for party financing, predicated on fairness, transparency, affordability, and ethical conduct.
Virtually every other western democracy has long ago crossed this Rubicon. They have all modernized their rules to reduce the potential for abuse and the type of public cynicism of the political process that is growing in British Columbia. The NDP, Green party, independent MLA Vicki Huntington, Democracy Watch, Integrity B.C., and many others have all made strong arguments for meaningful change.
I couldn’t agree more.
An apologist’s excuse for the status quo
Full confession: in all my years in B.C. politics, I didn’t give a hoot about changing the status quo that so advantaged “my” teams at the NDP’s expense and that so also materially benefited me. I certainly didn’t see the political playing field as being unfairly skewed in my party’s favour. If anything, I saw it as being unduly tilted to the NDP’s advantage. I believed the NDP was at least every bit as beholden to the union “kingpins” as the “free enterprise” parties were to their rich corporate donors. I thought then, as I do today, that the third-party interests that funded both of B.C.’s main parties had way too much influence and “skin in the game". Particularly if they weren’t on "my side". In any case, during my decade in the premier’s office, Gordon Campbell kept me pretty much insulated from party fundraising activities.
He did that to minimize any potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest involving those of us working as public servants who were in a position to materially influence government decisions. When it came to fundraising, I was a content little mushroom, kept deliberately in the dark that also kept me and the government out of harm’s way.
Political staffers don’t tend to do well when they attract too much light or become the subject of public attention. I had no desire to invite unwanted scrutiny by getting involved in matters of political finance, which frankly, should be outside the purview of any public servant, including political appointees.
As such, I didn’t attend party fundraisers, except for the B.C. Liberals’ very public annual leader’s dinners, or other such events.
For the most part, I didn’t have a clue who gave what, or to whom, to bask in the politicians’ grateful glow at those so-called “pay-to-play” events that the politicians hosted.
Nor did I attend party finance committee meetings, or even really know who comprised that mostly mysterious group of political bagmen. Didn’t care. Didn’t want to know.
Although my senior issues management staff did keep abreast of who was on each party’s reported political donors list, I usually never even looked at the parties’ annual financial disclosures. I didn’t need to. I had a pretty good idea of which sectors gave to each of B.C.’s main parties and the individual names were not material to me. My party’s allies were easy enough to spot at most public and private events. I pretty much assumed all of them were party donors to some extent. For me, that hardly mattered.
The stories highlighting the names of large donors that those financial disclosures always generated were a flash in the pan that didn’t produce much political heat. What I really valued were “validators”, those relatively select bunch of “real friends” who were prepared to publicly stand up for the premier and his government when asked to do so, including by me.
I really couldn’t care less whether those individuals or entities gave money to the B.C. Liberal party. At least, not outside of the campaign period, when I always took an unpaid leave of absence from government to go work for the party that then paid my salary through each election.
That doesn’t mean that lots of big donors didn’t get special attention and consideration. They did, in contrast to the labour unions and other public supporters of the NDP. Typically, the “opposition”, broadly construed, wasn’t given the time of day, or any consideration in formulating government policy. Not by me and not by most of those who sat in the government caucus.
As I have said before, “For the Liberals, the housing industry, construction industry, real estate, the liquor industry, energy industry, certainly the mining industry, big forest industry—all gave exceptional amounts of money, and they got exceptional attention.”
I stand by that statement. Self evidently, all of those sectors got much of what they publicly asked for to expand their activities, to create more jobs, and yes, to make them more profitable.
Their interests and concerns were better understood, and sometimes advanced by government, at least in part because of the access to power that their abundant political contributions helped leverage.
That is not to impugn the motives of those who give large sums to political parties, as I stressed in my previous installment. For the most part, the people who give big and who given often to political parties are passionately concerned about their province. They are deeply supportive of their chosen parties’ ideologies and stated aims. And they tend to respect and believe in the candidates they fund, to the extent they know them.
Sure, there are some bad actors, who are motivated by sheer greed or other unsavory factors. We’ve all seen enough about public corruption scandals to be wary of those who might resort to any foul means to achieve their ends.
But as we rightly question the unhealthy influence of big money in B.C. politics, we must also be careful to resist the temptation to unfairly tar all large donors as unscrupulous characters. If anything, the reverse is true of the vast majority. They are usually stellar individuals and laudable corporate citizens who did much to earn their estimable reputations as philanthropists and community builders of the first order. That’s also true of most of those who raise money for parties. They are typically honourable and altruistic people who give their valuable time and energy to help enrich our political process and to help the parties they believe are best for B.C.
Anyway, it is not so much the motives behind those large political contributions that most concerns me today, as a sorry apologist for having done so little to get big money out of politics.
Rather, it the real and perceived outcomes, impacts, and harm those unduly large gifts to the parties tend to needlessly generate. The unrestricted and mostly unregulated nature of those donations is a big and growing problem. For public confidence in our democracy. For government decision-making. For the ability of all parties to fairly compete in elections. And even for many of those donors. Which takes me to the first point in my argument for campaign finance reform.
1. Large donors have too much influence on government
Most recent stories on B.C.’s “wild west” system of political financing have focused on the inordinate contributions made by the parties’ largest contributors—on the size and concentration of those offerings.
Those stories have largely pursued the “who-gives-what” angle, aimed at “outing” the names and sources of the parties’ largest donors. Those revelations have also highlighted the glaring and growing disparity between the two parties’ fundraising success and campaign war chests. They have illuminated the potential conflicts of interest that flow from the parties’ lucrative “cash-for-access” fundraisers.
As we all now know, courtesy of the Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason and others, the B.C. Liberals’ soirées have extracted up to $20,000 per donor for the privilege of dining with Premier Christy Clark and/or her ministers. Those events at least partially funded the infamous $50,000 “top-up” salary that Clark had, until recently, received from her party.
It all raises the question of whether the parties’ unrestricted reliance on large donors leaves them open to undue access and influence that is at least suspect and troubling. Ya think?
Big money does buy ready access to those in power, if only indirectly.
It buys the prospect of ongoing relationships with decision-makers who are in positions to benefit, harm, prioritize, or neglect the interests of those giving that money to parties. It buys open ears and receptive hearts that flutter with gratitude for those who “care enough” to give. Especially for those who are prepared to also serve as visible and vocal “validators” for the political objects of their affection, be they people, parties, policies, laws, regulatory relief, public investments, subsidies, tax relief, or other forms of welcome support. In the eyes of many of B.C.’s largest donors, money also buys them protection. Both from their ideological enemies, who they fear might get elected, and from the prospect of reprisal by those who ask them for money and expect them to “pay up”.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the credo in politics for those who give and for those who receive alike. It is that ideological canon that drives so many of B.C.’s most lavish donors to shower so much “love” on their parties of faith. They give obscene sums of money that they obviously regard as investments, aimed at producing unspecified returns. They invest that unique form of risk capital in the political process to achieve democratic outcomes that they hope will build and strengthen the political relationships that might in turn advance their self-interests.
It is those “gifts” of money that distinguishes and consolidates those relationships, which so inform decision-makers’ limited knowledge and understanding of the issues, challenges, and responses that “demand” timely and emphatic action from government.
It is the proximity to power afforded through those relationships—and the inordinate influence over the exercise of power, however tangential, unpredictable, or tenuous it might be—that distinguishes political donations from other more benevolent types of donations.
Only the B.C. Liberals would have you believe otherwise.
Ideology may be at the root of those relationships, which are certainly less “friendships” than they are alliances of convenience and mutual interest.
But make no mistake: when cash changes hands, it neatly divides the political world into “friends” and “enemies” for all those who see it in zero sum terms. Which is pretty much everybody who has a vested interest in politics, in my experience.
It is a symbiotic bond, as between pilot fish and sharks, however difficult it might be to determine which is which, in the murky depths of political finance.
Both the givers and the takers tend to swim together in closed circles where each recognizes the other as a familiar and welcome presence. Each profits from the benefits the other provides, taking turns as one or the other—as givers and takers—in reciprocal tides of role reversal.
One day you’ve got your palms out, asking your assumed allies for money, support, or “sensible” consideration. The next day you’re metaphorically greasing their palms with pennies and policies from tax heaven.
To be clear, in all of my years at the center of power, no one ever asked me for, or received, any special consideration for their company or enterprise in return for their contributions.
In all of the cabinet meetings and various other policy-making meetings I attended, I never once heard anyone suggest that any donor or sector should be given anything because of their monetary contributions to the B.C. Liberals.
Nor am I aware of any instance whereby anyone either asked for, or received, any inappropriate benefit from government in exchange for their political largesse.
Which is another way of saying that no one in my experience acted criminally in trying to secure favours from government by giving money to the B.C. Liberals and being so crass and stupid as to overtly draw that connection. Those benefactors all knew, as their political beneficiaries all did and do, that big money speaks for itself—silently and effectively.
It whispers through telling markers of association—through lofty job titles and embossed business cards that scream out their political alliances by dint of assumption.
It worms its way into party election platforms and into governments’ agendas for action.
Ask yourself, how do politicians and governments get their ideas in the first place? How do they develop their legislative agendas, their budgetary priorities, and their “visions”?
I’ll tell you, as someone who authored four election platforms and a dozen throne speeches.
They start by asking their “friends”—their ideological allies and the large sectoral interests—one simple question: “what is it you want?”
What can government do for you, to help you succeed? What should it change? How might it help? What is right and what is wrong? What are the problems and what are the solutions?
In doing so, all parties tend to go first and foremost to the ones who “brought them to the dance”—the partners who paid for their ticket, whose money can just as easily be withheld to leave the politicians out in the cold and out of a job.
The richest of those givers are the ones who most get the politicians’ undivided attention, supplemented by all the rest, who often struggle just to get really heard.
It’s hardly a perfect correlation. Which is why it is so difficult to prove “influence theory” in empirically linking political contributions to policy outcomes, to demonstrate causal relationships. God knows, the Campbell government mostly tried to do what it thought was right, even at the expense of alienating some of the B.C. Liberals’ largest financial supporters.
Initiatives like the carbon tax, forest-tenure reforms, and the government’s new relationship with First Nations did little to endear Campbell or his crew to those who felt that such policies would cost way too much of their companies and shareholders. So many decisions made by government were assailed by large corporate donors that thought the Campbell government had “abandoned” them, who gave so much. I did hear comments to that effect from individuals who were frustrated that their offerings had not produced their desired result.
I expect that the B.C. Liberals’ large donors in the real estate and development communities felt likewise when the Clark government blindsided them with its foreign buyers' tax.
The hard lesson they all learned, time and time again, was that money certainly doesn’t always buy the love they might have hoped and prayed it would. It just mostly does.
But it’s so hard to prove when every player in the game is so intent on dispelling that notion without fundamentally altering the unspoken facts.
Hence the need to limit the size of individual political donations and to altogether ban corporate and union donations, as so many others have suggested. Those are only two of many measures that should be adopted for the express purpose of reducing big money’s influence on government. Because big money indirectly buys special relationships that too often produce special results for the rich and powerful few—too often, at the expense of the marginalized many, whose voices and interests are systemically discounted and are not always fairly heard or considered.
2. The current system is coercive
In a fundraising system without rules and restrictions, politics is a protection racket. People tend to give because they are asked. That basic fact is often overlooked in all the hubbub about large donors ostensibly trying to buy special influence through their political contributions.
Most donors only give because they have been solicited, including by agents of parties in power. To the extent that those donors’ interests are impacted by government, they are inherently positioned in a semisubordinate or quasi-dependent relationship.
Some of them give big when asked to contribute in large amounts, probably because they feel they really have no option. That is, not if they want to stay in the government’s good graces, or not have their interests and concerns dismissed by those decision-makers who they fear might perceive them as being either “unhelpful” or outright hostile.
Whether that’s true or not is beside the point: no one should feel obliged to give because they feel pressured to do so by those who twist their arms. No one should feel coerced into giving out of “moral suasion”that rides on the fear of the consequences for failing to “pony up”—which are far more material than anyone sitting at the cabinet table would ever admit, perhaps even to themselves.
What could possibly be more coercive than a system that legally allows those who are in a position to punish or reward you, enrich or impoverish you, or make or break your enterprise, to solicit your unlimited “donation”, as often as they see fit?
What could possibly be more coercive than a system that encourages and rewards those in power to leverage large sums of money from those whose welfare they largely control, by virtue of all they control in government? In mob movies, the goons with the guns shake down the “little guys” to extract regular payments in return for their “protection”—meaning they won’t get beaten up or have their place torched by those asking for money, or by those wanting to impinge on those gangsters’ turf.
In B.C.’s wild west of campaign finance, it’s all so much more civil. And incredibly legal. Imagine for a moment that you are a prospective donor—a rich target, as it were.
You can expect plenty of emailed “invites”, urging you to buy one or more seats at those exclusive “pay-to-play” fundraisers that might cost thousands of dollars a plate to attend.
If you don’t respond, chances are, you’ll get a knock on your office door. If you do buy that seat or table, you can expect many more such visits from those well-connected “players” you probably know.
They are agents of the people in positions of influence and power. They arrive wearing broad smiles and sharp suits, perhaps even offering to wine and dine you. You know the drill. You know why they are there. And it is not to dazzle you with their pearly-white teeth, coiffed hair, and pin-striped elegance. It is to urge you to “give” to their party. Your party, right? The one in government that stands between you and your dreams or fears. The one that controls tax policy, regulatory policy, every provincial law in the land, budget expenditures, public infrastructure investments, and so much more.
The one that “gave” you that tax cut, that helped “allow” your enterprise become more profitable, or that otherwise “delivered” what you asked for, with no apparent strings attached. The one that might decide whether your project wins approval, whether your Crown lease is renewed or revised, or whether you will pay more or less for doing whatever it is you do.
You might get out your checkbook, or intimate you might do so, just to make them go away.
Months later, they may return to your office, perhaps after you said “sorry, I’m tapped out.”
If you gave before, that might be enough to temporarily keep the beggars at bay. If you didn’t, they know you can’t claim you “gave at the office”.
And so, they urge you yet again, in no uncertain terms, to “dig deep”—to keep whatever benefits you received from their/your party that has been “so good to you”. Because, well, you know…you wouldn’t want to lose those benefits, least of all, by inadvertently “putting” someone else in office through a lack of political generosity.
The implied subtext seems clear.
Now suppose you are on the edge of bankruptcy, or are desperately in need of government action. Or you are just tired of being perpetually ignored by the powers that be. Suppose an entirely different agent phoned you up on behalf of his or her opposition party, noting its pending proximity to power and its “real shot” at forming the next government. "It would be a real shame," that solicitor volunteers, "if your 'real enemies' were returned to power because 'some' people didn’t care enough to give what was needed to throw them out of office."
Or maybe that agent tries a different tact. Like reminding you that he or she “couldn’t help but notice” that you haven’t given in awhile. Or that you have never given to their party. Or that you have given so much to the “other guys” who rule the roost. Politicians do have long memories and they do hold their grudges, that agent’s body language suggests. Hmmm. What to do?
Welcome to the real world of coercive fundraising that largely explains why so many give so much to B.C.’s political parties, especially when they are in government.
It’s the black-and-white world reflected in parties’ telemarketing appeals and fundraising letters: all carrot and stick, reward and punishment, and good and evil. Money makes that world go round, through conflicting appeals to people’s “loyalty”, fears, hopes, and above all, self-interest. Give now, it pleads, because only more money can assure that “might makes right”.
As I said, it stinks. But it works. Particularly for those in power.
And like other stuff that stinks, coercion flows down the pipe. Employees are subtly pressured to also support the parties they are told control their livelihoods. There are so many ways to give that properly embrace the unspoken corporate culture.
Those who really want no part of politics, and who may not even support a particular party, suddenly find themselves relenting when asked to be “good soldiers” and “team players”.
They fill those seats at tables that are bought by god-knows-who at party fundraisers. They stand up and clap on cue, however languidly, to fly the flag their employers are waving, to prove their allegiance to the politician at the front, who imagines they are true believers.
Some of those employees might even donate themselves when asked, as part of doing their bit to help their bosses stand and deliver for that party that pressed them for money. Others might give without ever being asked, somehow thinking it’s part of their job, or believing it will make them “players” who will be more effective in doing their jobs. Because sometimes it does.
What’s a poor schmo working in government relations, corporate communications, or the lobby trade to believe? What’s a senior executive of any overtly politically biased enterprise to do?
It’s probably hard to say “no” to those who ask you to pay to attend an event that is to be hosted by the premier or a minister. And harder yet if that “host” is the same person who presides over your industry.
It’s probably extra hard to say “no” if you are personally asked to “be there” by an elected official, whose very “ask” implicitly also suggests that your attendance or lack of it (meaning your contribution) will be duly noticed and noted. It’s all wrong. Very wrong. And the fact that the likes of me did nothing to change that when we had a bit of power does not change that fact.
I dare say, most large donors would love to change the rules, to limit how much they could be asked to give as individuals. They would likely welcome banning contributions from anyone who is not eligible to vote in B.C., as the Opposition has suggested and as many jurisdictions have long ago done.
It’s the donors who are arguably being hurt the most by that same coercive system that also stands to advantage them via the relationships their sometimes grudging “gifts” help to secure.
Certainly no one should feel obliged to make large contributions to parties they do not support, if only as a “hedging strategy”, to save themselves harmless from an election outcome they dread. That factor, more than any other, most credibly explains why the NDP was so abnormally successful in squeezing contributions from some of the B.C. Liberals’ largest donors in the run-up to the 2013 provincial election.
I mean, it’s not like those corporate donors had a history of giving to the NDP. Like almost everyone in B.C., they just wrongly assumed it would form the government. And some of them, no doubt, feared that if they did not spread their “love” around, there might be unpleasant repercussions.
It all adds up to a uniquely political protection racket that isn’t. Because that type of giving from ideological opposites almost never really does buy love or protection from the parties that are all too happy to take their money. Whether they win or lose, they are ideologically inclined to do what they will, regardless of how much they extract from the people who fear them, or who hope to newly ingratiate themselves with an incoming administration of a different political persuasion.
The unions that are aligned with the NDP and that contribute so much to its efforts seem to understand that very well. Which might explain why almost none of them give a dime to the B.C. Liberals. There is no “protection” from ideology that rewards its own ends with great gobs of money. Even parties in power are not protected.
Sometimes even the “protectors” can get unwittingly captured by their own hostages, through an ongoing and deep-seated reliance on cash contributions and their leveraged relationships.
There was a time, no so long ago, when the B.C. Liberals couldn’t raise a plug-nickel from those who so generously gave to the Social Credit party. The B.C. Liberal party was at least partially coerced, seduced, and coopted by lure of big money. It morphed into something it wasn’t, in becoming British Columbia’s ruling conservative party, in all but name. That didn’t happen by accident. It happened in part because the big monied interests wanted to install people in power who they thought would be most sympathetic to their interests and ideas. And the B.C. Liberals danced to their tune as they turned away from Gordon Wilson’s liberal party to embrace Gordon Campbell’s decidedly conservative “Liberals”, who are now mostly anything but what their namesake ideology suggests.
Funny how Christy Clark—a long-avowed “true” liberal—became even more conservative than Campbell. I’m sure that her party’s reliance on those who pay its bills had nothing to do with it.
Yet the fact remains, virtually no one but the B.C. Liberals actually likes the status quo that is not nearly as “voluntary” as it might appear to be at first blush. New rules are required to dictate who can give, and to limit how much anyone is allowed to contribute. A new administrative regime is also needed, to require that all political donations made above a reasonable threshold must be paid to Elections B.C., for that agency to receive, record, and process in flowing those contributions through to their intended parties.
New rules are further required to publicize the names of party solicitors and to guide their conduct—and to expressly prohibit “cash-for-access” fundraisers.
And that’s only scratching the surface of what is really needed to aggressively counter the coercive nature of B.C.’s current campaign finance regime.
3. The B.C. Liberals have an unfair funding advantage
Lots has been written on this flaw in today’s no-holds-barred system of party fundraising. The disparity in the amounts raised by each of B.C.’s parties, year after year, makes its own case.
The Vancouver Sun’s latest analysis on the top 50 donors in each party was especially telling. The B.C. Liberals raised nearly $80 million from the corporate sector between 2005-2015. That represents almost a 6:1 advantage over the $14 million that the NDP managed to collect from the unions in that same period.
As the B.C. Liberals recently disclosed, a few months before they were legally required to do so, they raised $12.4 million last year. Of that, $7.9 million was from corporate donations. In one year. The governing party received almost $10 million in political contributions in 2015—more than three times the $3 million the NDP raised. In 2014, the B.C. Liberals raked in $10.1 million from donors, again, over triple the NDP’s nearly $3.2 million.
Think of that. In corporate donations alone the B.C. Liberals are more than doubling the NDP’s entire take from all donors.
And the B.C. Green party? In 2015 it raised a paltry $394,000—a banner year, by its historic standards. That’s barely 3.9 percent of what the B.C. Liberals managed to collect in that same year.
Try fighting a competitive election campaign on that amount of money. Having been there, done that, during my stint with the B.C. Reform party, I can tell you, it’s hard to be taken seriously when you can’t reasonably compete in any way, shape, or form that demands cold, hard cash.
If you can’t afford to run TV ads, pay for party organizers, or pay for all of the other crucial components of any effective campaign, you’re really not in the game and everyone knows that. Social media helps rebalance that reality, but at least today, it’s not enough.
Money is the “M-perative” upon which any party’s strength of message, marketing, membership, and related media coverage all ride, which are so critical to its mission. It takes something truly extraordinary—a seminal event or triumph of leadership—to change that equation that normally dooms distant third parties to ongoing oblivion before they even get out of the gate. The larger the systemic funding disparity between B.C.’s parties grows, the worse it is for our democracy. Not just because of the difficulties it poses for the ability of smaller parties to fairly compete; but also, in how it handicaps the NDP, as B.C.’s only other realistic current option for government.
Some may point to other elections as proof that the party that spends the most isn’t necessarily the one that wins. Maybe so. The winds of change can be a powerfully leveling force that can throw even the best-funded parties off-balance. But the contenders have to be at least plausibly positioned to fight in the same ring. And in politics, that usually requires equitable pools of funding and related resources.
The B.C. Liberal party’s structurally devastating funding advantage versus its main challenger is the political equivalent of a UFC fight pitting heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic against lightweight champ Conor McGregor.
Sure, it’s possible that the latter may prevail, if he is really crafty, technically proficient, and extremely lucky.
But when the heavyweight is 6’ 4” and 240 pounds, you may not want to bet on the 5’ 9”, 155-pound lightweight. The disparity in firepower is simply overwhelming. So it is with the B.C. Liberals’ massive financial advantage over the New Democrats. The former’s 3:1 advantage over the latter in money raised from all donor sources is corrosive to our democracy. It assaults voters’ range of viable political choice, especially in the absence of an alternative electoral system that encourages and rewards choice. Some variant of proportional representation might help to counter that dangerous reality and growing threat in British Columbia.
The absence of rules and restrictions on party financing that exists in B.C.’s current campaign finance system structurally favours one party over all the rest. And that painfully obvious truth is caustic in its effect on so many tenets of true democracy. It undermines voter choice and fair elections predicated on genuine voter equality. It undermines meaningful multiparty systems. And it frustrates real accountability and transparency that ensure control over the abuse of power.
4. The system lacks transparency
The Clark government would have British Columbians believe that it is the champion of transparency in political finance. It plans to introduce a law that would oblige all parties to publicly disclose the names of their contributors and the amounts of those donations within 10 days of deposit. Good stuff. That would be better than today’s annual reporting requirements. Trouble is, it will do nothing to address the any of the arguments this essay makes for campaign finance reform. It won’t even make the system more transparent.
Introducing so-called “real-time disclosures” will only make public tomorrow what is already public today, but in more timely fashion.
What we need is new transparency that discloses the names and amounts given by anyone who attends any specific fundraising event held on every party’s behalf. Private cash-for-access fundraisers involving elected officials should be altogether outlawed.
After months of getting pilloried for its “pay-to-play” events, even the Trudeau government has now been pressured into taking some small action in that regard, to improve transparency.
As the Vancouver Sun recently reported, it is “drafting new rules for cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates, which will require future ‘cash-for-access’ political fundraisers to be held in publicly available spaces, advertised in advance and reported on publicly in a timely manner to reveal who donated to the parties”.
It is outrageous that the public has no means of ascertaining who pays to attend the parties’ private fundraisers, or how much they or their organizations contribute to the success of those ventures. There is no way of determining which cabinet ministers and/or backbenchers might have attended those functions, to the extent that the former do not transparently reflect them in their FOI-able calendars, and that the latter are not subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
There is no requirement for those secretive tête-à-têtes to be held in public forums, so that the public can hear or read what the politicians are saying to those well-heeled donors.
Party contributions made under seemingly distinct but relevantly linked sources are not transparent, to the degree that they legally mask the true identity and aggregated value of those donations. It should not require investigative reporting from the other media to ascertain those connections, which Gordon Hoekstra recently exposed in his two-part feature for the Vancouver Sun.
The identities of donations made by individuals under similar, but not identical names, or by the entities they run or own is not transparent.
Donations made by numbered companies and unincorporated organizations are anything but transparent. Under the Election Act, only the names of at least two directors, principal officers, or principal members of those organizations have to be disclosed in the parties’ annual financial reports.
It is virtually impossible to trace the broader identity of those donors’ original funding sources. It is also impossible to ascertain how much individuals or companies might indirectly contribute to parties through the retainers and fees-for-service they pay to service providers, who they know or should know, also incorporate political contributions costs into their billings or fee schedules.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that anyone is breaching the Election Act. It prohibits making political contributions with the money, property, or services of another, as it also bans giving any of those things to an individual or organization for them to make as a political contribution, or as consideration for that individual or organization making a political contribution.
I’m sure everyone respects that as far as the law demands. Indeed, I expect it would be illegal for anyone to submit invoices to their clients with a line item for any political contribution costs indirectly incurred to attend “pay-to-play” fundraisers or to participate in political golf fundraisers, to gain access to politicians aimed at advancing their clients’ interests.
Yet the underlying nature of those types of donations lacks transparency.
That problem can be most easily remedied by simply banning all political contributions from anyone who is not eligible to vote—as the NDP has suggested. And also, by limiting the size of allowable donations from any individual at any event, and in total for any year.
No issue of transparency has generated as much public attention and derision in recent memory as the revelation that Premier Clark had until recently been collecting $50,000 a year in party-paid salary on top of her $193,000 government salary.
That only came to light last April due to the Globe and Mail’s sleuthing.
Turned out, Gordon Campbell had also collected that benefit from the B.C. Liberal party since 1993, unbeknownst to me in all my time working for him.
I was never aware of the amount of Campbell’s “stipend”, not having been involved with the filing of his annual disclosures to conflict commissioner. Every year, both premiers Campbell and Clark duly reported their party-paid leader’s allowance, as law required them to. Yet the substantial amounts they received were never publicized, as the act does not require elected members to disclose any dollar figures.
In the 13 years I worked for Campbell, I assumed all he received from the party was some form of car and clothing allowance, in addition to party-related expense reimbursements. I never even thought to probe what he might have been receiving from the B.C. Liberals. It was never deemed to be a problem. Whatever benefits he might have received from the party were ostensibly OK with the conflict commissioner, and that was all I needed to know.
Subsequent to the public revelation about Clark’s top-up salary, Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch and NDP MLA David Eby filed conflict of interest complaints, which the commissioner reviewed in combination and subsequently dismissed in clearing the premier of any conflict.
Conacher asserted that Clark’s acceptance of the sizable donations made by those attending the B.C. Liberals’ private fundraisers that she hosted constituted “gifts and benefits” that contravened the Member’s Conflict of Interest Act.
Eby alleged that Clark had breached the Act because she had a direct, private interest in the donations from those "exclusive" events that were effectively returned to the premier, in part, to through her annual $50,000 leader’s allowance.
Conacher and Eby might have saved themselves their trouble.
The outcome of that review would have been clear enough to anyone who had read what the conflict commissioner said to the legislature’s all-party committee on Parliamentary Reform, Ethical Conduct back in 2012-13.
One of the changes he recommended in his multiple submissions to that committee was to add a definition of a “gift or personal benefit” in the Members’ Conflict of Interest Act. He wanted to clarify what that term would mean with respect to MLAs’ public disclosure requirements.
The committee ultimately embraced that recommendation in its March 2013 report, on the eve of that year’s provincial election, but rather sneakily did not divulge that recommendation’s most controversial aspect.
The commissioner’s suggested new definition of a “gift or personal benefit” under the act proposed to expressly eliminate any requirement for public disclosure for gifts and benefits provided to elected members by their parties. As defined, “gift or personal benefit” would not include a gift or personal benefit “received from a riding association or political party...”
The commissioner pointed out that laws in other jurisdictions such as Ontario, Alberta and the federal parliament, all had provisions that specifically excluded the mandatory disclosure of personal benefits provided to elected members by their parties, including remuneration and financial assistance.
Why? Essentially for the reasoning offered by former conflict commissioner H.A.D. Oliver, back in 1999.
He found that “the giving of gifts or personal benefits is a problem only when there is a possibility of thereby influencing a member in the exercise of his legislative duties to grant some advantage to the donor”. And that no advantage could not possibly accrue to a member's political party or riding association if legal expenses [or other benefits] are provided by them.
Hence there should be no need to publicly disclose any monetary or other benefits provided by parties to MLAs under the Act.
It is also noteworthy that the commissioner’s proposed definition of gift or personal benefit, mirroring federal provisions, would have all excluded gifts or benefits “received in the context of a purely private relationship; or that is of such a nature that it could not reasonably be regarded as likely to influence the member in the performance of the member’s duties”.
Like, say, a free helicopter ride to stay for free at some “long-standing friend’s” private-island home in the Bahamas? All good? Our prime minister might think so.
Though I’m not sure most citizens would agree. Especially not if that same individual had also donated to that lucky member’s party. Which is not at issue in the very different grounds for conflict allegations now being reviewed by the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.
Better to simply ban all MLAs—not just cabinet, as the NDP has suggested—from accepting any form of additional remuneration from any source, parties included. Being an MLA in any capacity should be regarded as a full-time job for which they are already generously compensated by B.C. taxpayers.
Better to also limit the amount any MLA can receive from his or her party in any one year in reimbursement for expenses, such as for travel, clothing, entertainment, or all-expense-paid vacations.
Those expense reimbursements should all be disclosed by parties under the Election Act, as part of the parties’ mandatory financial reports, in the interest of transparency, for party members and the public alike.
Let’s not forget, all parties are funded by individual donations that are at least partially subsidized by taxpayers, to the tune of $4 million a year in total, through the provincial political contributions tax credit.
Although for some bizarre reason, this week’s provincial budget estimated the cost of that “tax expenditure” as “only” $3 million for 2016/17. Which is odd, considering that the Liberals’ raised $2 million more in overall donations last year than it had in the year prior, and further, that 2016/17 is a pre-election year.
We already know that the B.C. Green party is doing better than it had in raising money from individual contributions. And I would be shocked if the NDP’s forthcoming disclosure for 2016 did not also show its contributions were up over previous years as well. No doubt it’s a perfectly defensible estimate of the cost of the political contributions tax credit. But it would be nice to know why. And it would be better yet to require annual legislative approve for all tax expenditures and for any political subsidies, via open debate and votes in the legislature, as part of the annual estimates process. Point is, there are no transparency requirements for parties to fully report to their members, or to the public, how they spend their money, or what they each indirectly receives in taxpayer-funded political subsidies. There should be.
No one currently has any legal right to know what really gets spent on party staffers’ salaries, on contractors and advisors, on specific polling, advertising, or on other campaign elements. That should be mandatory.
If Christy Clark really believed in “transparency” she would act to address all of these flaws in the current system that make a mockery of her government’s belated sop to that value. Related to that issue of transparency is the growing problem of “dark money”.
5. Dark money is a growing problem
In broaching this subject, a little background is in order. I use the term “dark money” to mean something a little different than what it suggests south of the border.
By “dark money”, I mean money that is donated to third parties, without any requirement for disclosure, which use it to help finance advertising campaigns of a partisan or political nature.
In the United States, dark money refers to the funding provided to nonprofit organizations that do not have politics as their primary purpose, but that can nevertheless spend whatever they wish on partisan campaigns to influence elections, without ever having to divulge who funded them. The lack of any legal donor disclosure requirements for those organizations distinguishes them from other third-party efforts known as “PACs” (political action committees) and “Super PACs” (i.e. “independent-expenditure-only committees”). They only exist to influence election outcomes, typically through partisan advertising.
Both PACs and Super PACs may make unlimited expenditures aimed at electing or defeating federal candidates. Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions.
PACs differ from Super PACs in that only the former can make donations to parties and candidates and coordinate their efforts with them, and only the latter can accept money from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups.
Unlike the nonprofit entities funded with dark money, both PACs and Super PACs must disclose their donations and expenditures for the campaign periods covered by federal law.
Untold billions of dollars now get spent in the States on these types of third-party campaigns that are largely funded by corporations, unions and various for-profit entities. The sky’s the limit on Super PAC activities beholden to big monied interests, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia SpeechNow ruling, both in 2010. Those third-party groups can all spend whatever they want to throw political dirt at their ideological adversaries, in the hope that it sticks. And it does. That’s wrong. And it’s a growing problem that has also taken root in B.C.
We may not have any dark-monied interests during the campaign period, as they do in the States. And unlike the American regime, we have strict limits on how much any third-party sponsors can spend during that month-long period.
But at least in the States, PACs and Super PACs are obliged to report on their donations and expenditures during the 60-day period prior to a general election. By law, all third parties sponsoring election advertising are required to disclose their funding sources to Elections B.C. for the 28-day formal campaign period. There are no disclosure requirements in B.C. for any political advertising conducted by third-party organizations before the writ is dropped. It’s anyone’s guess how much they spend or who pays for their campaigns.
I think that’s wrong. It is the British Columbia equivalent version of dark-money campaign activity, as I mean it. That is, expensive advertising campaigns that are political and sometimes partisan in nature, funded by donors whose names and corporate identities are not known, with no limit on how much those organizations can spend to either directly or indirectly influence elections.
It is a different form of dark money that is not in any way illegal. Yet it does allow those who anonymously fund such campaigns to influence election outcomes with enormously expensive pre-election ad campaigns that are, in my view, corrosive to democracy.
Much more work on this subject needs to be done, if only to give governments more evidence from political scientists and others about its true nature and impact.
That is also important for legal reasons, as evidenced by the B.C. Liberals’ tortuous experience in shaping and defending Election Act changes. The Campbell government tried to curb the cost and influence of third-party election advertising as part of its broader desire to also reduce the growing costs of campaigns and to preserve the integrity of spending limits imposed on parties under the act.
The government’s 2002 amendments to the act outlawed political contributions from charities and eliminated the ability of corporations and unions to provide paid “volunteers” to the parties. The 2008 amendments went much further. I was intimately involved in shaping those changes that were introduced largely in response to the chief electoral officer’s 2006 recommendations.
A new definition of “election advertising” was added. Another new provision specified that sponsors of any such advertising must be independent of registered political parties and their candidates, and must not sponsor election advertising on behalf of or together with them.
But the government also made several amendments that the CEO had not envisioned. New spending limits were imposed on parties, candidates, and independent third parties.
Party election expenses were restricted to a maximum of $1.1 million during the period beginning 60 days before the writ drops and $4.4 million for the campaign period. Candidates were restricted to a maximum expenditure of $70,000 for each of those periods.
Third-party election advertising was restricted to $3,000 in any single electoral district and to $150,000 provincewide—for the entire period starting 60 days prior to the official campaign, through election day.
Sadly, in my view, the courts repeatedly struck down the prewrit spending restrictions those changes imposed on parties, candidates, and third parties.
The Clark government failed to salvage those restrictions by shortening the “pre-campaign” period in which they applied.
In 2012, the B.C. Court of Appeal held as follows:
“definition of election advertising does not impair the constitutionality of the limitations on political expression imposed by the current amendments in the campaign period, the same cannot be said for the same limitations the definition serves to impose in the pre-campaign period. The current amendments unjustly interfere with the rights guaranteed by s. 2(b) of the Charter to the extent the freedom of political expression is limited in the pre-campaign period.”
The above noted spending limits were upheld for the 28-day campaign period, but the limits imposed prior to that period were deemed to be unconstitutional.
Ready. Set. Go. Let the third-party attack ads begin and continue without limit, right up until the writ is dropped, on April 11.
In practical terms, this means that it will be very tough, if not impossible, to restrict the partisan pre-election spending activities of British Columbia’s equivalent of PACs and Super PACs. We might, however, yet be able to regulate and restrict dark money by imposing new disclosure requirements on anyone engaging in “electioneering”.
As the 2008 Election Act amendments debacle showed, however, any government going down that path would need to first “get its ducks in order”. It would need to establish a much better evidentiary basis for its actions and hire the best legal minds possible to develop a constitutionally sound framework for any new disclosure requirements.
I suggest that’s needed. For as the B.C. Court of Appeal also observed, in 2015, “One need not look far afield to appreciate that without laws like the BC Act, election politics can become contests of wealth and media access rather than contests of ideas.”
The airwaves are already filled with quasi-political ads largely paid for by the big oil companies, to sing the praises of LNG, oilsands development, pipeline projects, and other natural resource development. And also, to establish and reinforce the B.C. Liberals’ preferred campaign narrative.
Those ads, by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Resource Works, and others, all too conveniently dovetail into the government’s own unscrupulous taxpayer-funded political advertising.
They are totally legitimate, and may or may not constitute “political expression”, as such, but there should be more transparency to help all citizens better understand who is really behind those efforts, how much they cost, and who pays for them.
Such independently funded and independently executed campaigns have always been part of B.C.’s political landscape. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the threat of dark money in B.C. that is compounding the B.C. Liberals’ already enormous financial advantage.
As the Straight's Charlie Smith recently explained on this website, a clandestine “group” of donors called Future Prosperity B.C. Inc. is now swamping the airwaves with attack ads aimed at negatively defining NDP leader John Horgan.
It is similar to attack ads in other elections by third-party organizations (click here, here, and here.)”
Although I did not in any way direct or coordinate those former efforts, they did make me very happy during my third “tour of duty” as the B.C. Liberals’ public campaign director.
Why? Because they did the “dirty” work as a de facto surrogates for the B.C. Liberal party, independently orchestrated and in accordance with the law.
They hurt the NDP and helped my party’s bid to get re-elected—and that’s all I really cared about.
Like American PACs and Super PACs, these types of entities appear and disappear with the political tides. They are vehicles of political expression aimed at hiding the identities of those who fund them, in part, to suggest an air of credibility through implied “memberships” or broad-based public support that has no basis in fact. They are vehicles to provide more legitimacy to efforts that would otherwise be more easily dismissed as the products of their funding sources, if their names were widely exposed.
They provide “safety and strength in numbers” to organizations and industrial sectors that don’t want to cast “real mud” in their own right at the politicians and parties who might one day get elected.
Future Prosperity B.C. is a shell entity fronted by the other “Say Anything John”, who formerly headed the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Its sole apparent purpose is to heighten public concern and fear about the largely unknown NDP leader, John Horgan, and to scare the public away from voting for his party. It is to negatively define him before he can positively define himself, just the B.C. Liberals did last election in its endless attack ads that defined Adrian Dix.
And because its massively expensive partisan and very personal advertising effort is taking place outside of the formal campaign period, not a penny of its cost or funding sources has to be disclosed, far as I know. Don’t look to the television networks to help get to the bottom of those types of political influencers. They are grateful for every dollar in advertising revenue they can get, regardless of who really funds those campaigns.
In the “old days”, it was mostly just the unions and large industrial sectors that tended to launch those types of campaigns. Like CAPP’s recent ads, their bona fide organizations at least told the public something about who was behind those efforts.
No one was more vocal in its contempt for the NDP and in its support for the B.C. Liberals than the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association.
The ICBA was very public in its efforts to attack the NDP and help re-elect Campbell’s Liberals. And believe me, I was very grateful for its independent campaigns, when my job depended on the success of that endeavour. So were lots of other folks in the government caucus and cabinet.
Here’s another thing. Transparency breeds secrecy and new strategies to avoid public scrutiny.
Freedom of information laws create new avenues for political embarrassment that lead politicians and political hacks to do a better job of guarding their secrets.
Hence the emergence of the B.C. Liberals’ “oral culture” that I practised and advocated. Hence the creative ways that government and its employees devised to legally circumvent public inspection. Hence the Clark government’s “triple delete” scandal.
All of it may be wrong and untenable. Some of it might be legally questionable, or worse. Yet the fact remains, the same dynamic applies to campaign financing.
The more negative attention and unwanted light that is shone by the media and by enhanced disclosure requirements on large donors that now give to B.C.’s parties, the more of that money will be diverted to de facto party surrogates that exist for odious purposes.
And don’t think the front men and women for those dark-monied sources won’t be noticed and appreciated by their partisan beneficiaries. They will. Some people have far more clout with government than the size and public relevance of their organization might suggest they should have. Validators and attack dogs compound their value to politicians and governments when they effectively donate through other channels that are all perfectly legal.
There is a reason why governments tend to canvass the names of prospective appointees to key agencies, boards, commissions and panels with many of those inordinately influential "supporters".
It’s because something that those special “advisers” did or do exceptionally matters to those political decision-makers. And often that “something” has a lot to do with politics, and with their exceptional indirect contributions to help get those politicians elected.
Perversely, the trend towards dark money will only grow, if left unchecked, unless we act to ban political corporate and union contributions, as we should.
Mark my words, that money will flow away from the parties, per se, straight into the dark-money coffers that finance unregulated political campaigns in accordance with the law. And we will all be the poorer for that reality.
Many of the unions don’t have the number of members or war chests they once did, whereas the corporate community has no end of money at its disposal.
We need to tackle this problem now, by putting new rules in place that limit, as far as constitutionally possible, the size and influence of dark money in politics.
6. The current system is wasteful and grossly expensive
How much should be enough to run a party and contest a campaign, at the constituency and provincial levels?
Here’s a hint. It’s far, far less than what the B.C. Liberals will have at their disposal to fund their campaign.
It’s absurd to think that any party should feel obliged to raise $12 million a year, as the Liberals are now doing, just to remain competitive.
A Maclean’s feature recently put the issue in perspective, as follows:
“Last year, the British Columbia Liberal Party raised more money than any ruling party in any other province in the country. It pulled in 13 times more than the Quebec Liberal Party, six times more than the Alberta NDP, twice what the Liberals did in Ontario. That’s a province with three times B.C.’s population, an economy triple the size, and a head-office count quadruple that of the Western province.”
This is crazy. And obscene.
The Liberals have raised over $32 million in the last three years alone. That’s likely triple what the NDP raised, which is still a lot of money.
Do we really want to follow the American example? Where politicians spend half their time raising money and the other half bickering over how to spend other people’s money, largely, to curry more favour with their largest donors? Because that’s where we are headed, unless we act now to reverse the growth in campaign spending, by cutting big money out of the equation.
In our province of only 4.6 million, any party should be able to ably run its affairs on a lot less than the $7.4 million that the B.C. Liberals spent on its party operations in 2015.
That was over double the $3.5 million spent by the NDP in that same year.
If parties are limited in what they can effectively raise, they will be forced to spend less as well.
In 2015, the most recent year for which financial reports are yet available, the B.C. Liberal party spent almost $1.8 million on salaries. That’s about 50 percent more and $600,000 more than the nearly $1.2 million the NDP spent on salaries that year. Presumably, $50,000 of that was for premier Clark’s top-up salary, since the filing showed nothing under “donations and gifts”.
Local riding costs accounted for about $672,000 out of the B.C. Liberals’ total $10.3 million in income that year, or less than seven percent of that amount—for all 87 ridings. The governing party spent spent nearly $2 million on fundraising costs alone, some 10 times more than the NDP’s reported $207,000 total cost of fundraising functions.
It spent almost $459,000 on office rent, utilities and maintenance—almost five times more than the $94,000 spent by the NDP.
It spent over $791,000 on professional services, nearly 300 percent more than the $271,000 spent by the NDP on that line item. The Liberals’ research and polling expenses of almost $400,000 were over 400 percent higher than the NDP’s $98,000 total.
Travel costs alone cost the Liberals’ almost $332,000. The NDP somehow got by on spending less one-fifth of that sum, at only $61,000 for travel. All of that, in a nonelection year.
And that’s only a partial list of expenses that all paint a picture of B.C. Liberal affluence and profligacy.
These are controllable costs for any party. They can all be managed down. And they would be reduced if the rules were changed to essentially force parties to live and campaign on more modest budgets.
Remember, taxpayers and all voters have an interest in that as well. Over $3 million of the Liberals’ nearly $10 million in donations in 2015 was contributed from individuals. As noted above, those funds are effectively subsidized by the $4 million in tax expenditures B.C. taxpayers provide for political tax credits to all parties.
B.C.’s increasingly costly finance regime also impacts the actual service that voters get from their elected officials.
As parties get more desperate to compete and win in the race for cash, the pressure on MLAs and ministers to “show a little leadership” becomes ever more intense and time-consuming. What that leads to, in practical terms, is politicians spending less time focused on their constituents and on their real jobs, to instead devote more time on fundraising activities.
It leads to the types of scandals that forced Ontario Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne to throw in the towel on her government’s loathsome “cash-for-access” fundraising program, which allegedly placed fundraising quotas on ministers.
We shouldn’t allow that type of behaviour.
Case in point. Province columnist Mike Smyth recently broke the story on how Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick had cancelled his scheduled panel appearance at the Pacific Agriculture Show in Abbotsford. Why did he initially snub the 9,000 farmers and ranchers attending that trade show? To instead organize a $5,000-a-plate Liberal fundraiser for Christy Clark at a Kelowna winery.
That incident gave “pay-to-play” a whole new meaning. Taxpayers don’t want to pay politicians to play at the expense of their elected duties. Least of all, to organize secret cash-for-access fundraisers for their political parties. Letnick was forced to back down and honour his earlier commitment to the agricultural community only after Clark determined that the story was generating too much political heat.
Truth be known, that type of thing happens all the time in a system that is consumed with the pursuit of political cash. The current system encourages elected officials to vest way too much energy on political fundraising that would be better spent doing the job they were elected to perform in the public interest.
The good news is, it could be a lot worse than it is today in British Columbia.
In my experience, MLAs including cabinet ministers did not typically spend any time on the phones, soliciting donations. I don’t remember former premier Campbell ever doing that, as a scheduled part of his day, as one sees in American politics.
Most of the fundraising functions that he would attend were in the evening, ostensibly in those “off hours” that did not impinge on his official duties. Not that he ever really had any off hours, spending virtually every second of his waking life consumed by matters of state.
There were exceptions, like golf fundraisers, and maybe the odd breakfast or luncheon. But fundraising was not at all typically part of his workday. And I dare say it isn’t for Premier Clark or for almost any MLA.
Reducing the cost of running parties and of competing in campaigns can only help increase the time elected officials have to do what they are actually paid to do. It can only help reduce the growing pressure on politicians to raise political capital at the expense of investing more of their time working in the public interest. We should make that happen by getting big money out of politics, by limiting the amounts that individuals can give to parties, and by setting hard caps on the amounts parties can spend in any year if they want to receive any form of funding assistance from B.C. taxpayers.
That would also reduce wasteful spending, including by those who wrongly give to parties to ingratiate themselves with politicians. Money does tend to help buy access that is sometimes oversold by those who seek to secure it through their donations and presence at party functions, to establish their relevance as “players” of import. Which in realty, they are not, and never will be.
More than a few so-called players profess to have special relationships and influence with politicians and decision-makers that they actually do not have. They take selfies at fundraisers and other exclusive private events to post on websites and social media sites.
“Here I am,” those pictures proclaim, “right next to the premier or the minister you need to succeed.”
In politics, as in life, pictures sometimes lie. They sometimes suggest relationships that often do not exist, and that actually frustrate free access to elected decision-makers.
So many domestic and foreign entities hire lobbyists, at great expense, to “open doors” that were never closed in the first place. They spend piles of money on those who give piles of money to governing parties and who trade on their purported “influence”, for no good reason. That’s another form of hidden waste that today’s funding regime unwittingly fosters.
I wasn’t much of a named target on lobbyists’ disclosures, if only because most of them knew that I wanted no truck or trade with them as such. Most of them likely weren’t too enamoured with my role in helping to push for the new lobbyist registry that was announced in the 2001 Throne Speech, which I principally authored. Despite its shortcomings, that new registry for the first time in B.C. obliged all lobbyists to publicly register their activities on behalf of their clients.
Believe me, that initiative wasn’t popular at the time with most of those types, many of whom donated to the B.C. Liberal party.
Anyway, for the most part, I didn’t see the point in meeting with lobbyists, both for appearances’ sake and because the whole enterprise always struck me as rather redundant and potentially unseemly. Particularly since I knew that those lobbyists’ bosses and clients typically had unfettered access to most of the government’s elected office holders and needed to only pick up a phone to reach me.
The politicians’ doors were always wide open, with welcome mats waiting, especially for those who gave the big bucks. I expect it has always been thus.
Lobbyists perform all sorts of valuable functions. And I certainly don’t mean to slag all of them or their mostly honourable profession. They can be great for their clients and for government.
Some of them are just more proficient than others as accomplished alchemists who know how to convert their political “gifts” into professional gold.
The real measure of their value and abilities would become rapidly apparent in a world that allows no one to effectively buy their way to relevance as overpriced intermediaries who probably too often deliver less than their clients pay them for.
Waste is endemic in B.C. politics, largely because too many care too much about money that they hope will buy them love.
7. The conflict of interest regime is ethically blind
So much of what I have written or alluded to above points to a more profound problem. Namely, the lack of almost any legally articulated framework for ethical intent, oversight, and accountability.
The system, as it were, is ethically blind. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the three acts that should expressly speak to the value of ethical conduct, the Election Act, the Lobbyists Registration Act, and the Members’ Conflict of Interest Act.
B.C.’s campaign fundraising regime must be expressly grounded in ethical conduct, specified under new Election Act rules, restrictions and protocols for better public transparency and protection.
The act needs to spell out what is expected, what is acceptable and what is forbidden in the solicitation, volunteering, and acceptance of political donations, that is, beyond what is already specified in that legislation and in the Canadian Criminal Code.
New disclosure requirements aimed at increasing the transparency of campaign contributions and third-party electioneering activities are part of that equation. So is stronger compliance, assured through better regulatory oversight and penalties for law-breakers.
Any law worth its salt cannot be wilfully “fudged” or routinely ignored in respect of ill-defined “shady areas” that the “system” doesn’t care enough about to properly enforce.
The unethical fundraising and campaign finance tactics that some people suspect exist in respect of activities that “push the envelope” of what the current law allows need to be identified, spelled out, and expressly prohibited.
The coercive reality of today’s fundraising regime that I previously addressed is innately unethical. It speaks to power relationships that are actively relied upon to leverage political contributions and to a system that fails to appreciate why allowing that is so wrong.
I do not mean to point fingers at anyone, or to suggest that anyone is now acting in any way that is legally inappropriate. Rather, it is what is unethical, and likely totally legal today, that concerns me.
Getting rid of big money in politics would eliminate nine-tenths of the potential for unethical conduct. But to the degree that doing that puts more pressure on parties to solicit many more, smaller donations than they rely upon today from individuals, it also creates new more opportunities for unethical behaviour.
New whistleblower protections are needed in the Election Act to guard against unacceptable campaign finance activities, with a funded commitment to public protection that is as strong the one held by the B.C. Securities Commission.
The Lobbyists Registration Act similarly needs to be updated, as the former registrar of lobbyists suggested, in her final annual report. It, too, needs a new “ethical lens” that is to everyone’s advantage—the public, the lobbyists, their “targets” and their clients alike. The Members’ Conflict of Interest Act also needs changes.
For eons successive conflict commissioners have been trying convince all parties to broaden their office’s mandate, to also cover issues of ethics, as other jurisdictions have done. Yet in their own perceived self-interest, the parties have always failed to pick up that mantle.
The merits of finally embracing the commissioner’s recommendations should be obvious to everyone, however much they are feared by the politicians who worry too much about how such changes might be abused.
They would do much to increase public confidence in political contributions and in the conduct of public office holders, including elected officials, political staffers, and senior civil servants.
We need to put the value of ethical conduct front and centre in the law that is today so silent on that subject. That demands new and broader restrictions on post-employment activities, for all MLAs, political staff, and senior public servants, in the interests of ethical conduct. It demands new powers for the commissioner to investigate issues of ethical relevance that he is today precluded from addressing.
He presently has no power to review the ethical conduct of elected members in respect of any matter that isn’t purely a question of conflict of interest. The premier’s former party-paid salary was not deemed to relate to her official duties and could not be construed as a private benefit in the sense captured by the Conflict of Interest Act.
But is it really ethical for her or any minister of the Crown to ask wealthy donors for money that is given to her party and used, in part, to fund her own party salary? To whom would anyone appeal for a ruling on the question, if there were no person to oversee such ethical questions?
Though it seems clear how the current commissioner might answer that question from his past public reasoning on the subject, there are likely lots of ethical questions related to campaign finance that might come his way. Getting clarity on those specific cases and concerns would in the long run help to bolster public confidence in both B.C.’s campaign finance regime and in elected representatives’ ethical conduct.
That requires new rules to guide the conduct of all elected members, political staffers, and public servants in respect of political fundraising and related activities.
The act should also outlaw the solicitation and acceptance of gifts of any value by any person in government, including from corporate entities that so graciously donate small tokens for “socials” and government forums that provide gifts to attendees.
Is it ethical for the premier’s office or any ministerial office to coordinate golf tournaments with staffers and members of the legislative press gallery, which conclude with small “prizes” for all participants, supplied by companies solicited by people in power? Some of whom undoubtedly also gave political donations to the B.C. Liberal party?
Not really, when you think about—which I did do, and did nothing to stop, in my time in the premier’s office. But it happens. Or what about those gifts from corporate donors that government approaches for “swag” to be handed out at government events? Those mostly inexpensive gifts are given, for any number of reasons. Corporate branding? Community support? Relationship-building? Yet another legal way of giving to a governing party/government, perhaps coordinated by in-house lobbyists or government relations people.
None of those types of ethically questionable practices, now institutionally promoted by government, should be allowed. The Canadian premiers’ annual meetings, known as the Council of the Federation, was hosted by British Columbia last March. I don’t know if it relied upon corporate sponsors, as previous meetings I attended sure did. But it would be interesting to compare the entities that sponsored all such meetings with their respective provincial political contributions.
My bet is there is a lot of overlap that blurs the lines between political donations and public donations that are equally aimed at impressing the governing parties that politically benefit from both.
Campaign fundraising cannot be seen or regulated in isolation of government activities that are even remotely aimed at asking those who give to parties, to give to them as government. It’s time we adopted a more holistic approach to ethical conduct that sets the bar high and makes B.C. a leader, not a laggard, in Canada.
Indeed, that same “call to arms” should guide B.C.’s long-overdue need for campaign reform. I’ve offered seven strong reasons. There are probably many other important arguments that can and should be made.
Hopefully enough of this long-winded, broadly construed case for campaign finance reform has given those patient enough to read it some useful new food for thought, or perhaps some useful personal insights that also contribute to B.C.’s historical political understanding.