And just like that, British Columbia’s premier Christy Clark has been forced to tacitly admit the error of her government’s ways, by reversing its course in refusing to even contemplate campaign finance reform.
Behold! She now concedes that more voters than she previously imagined are concerned about fixing B.C.’s globally disparaged “wild west” system of party funding. And further, that, by golly, she is going to take action!
After the election. By appointing an independent committee to study the issue. OK, and maybe also because it’s now the subject of an the RCMP investigation.
Way back in late nineties, it was then-Opposition B.C. Liberal MLA Christy Clark who first introduced me to South Park, that animated comedy, which she so loved to mimic.
“Nothing to see here,” she regurgitated ad nauseam, when confronted with the irrefutable evidence that B.C.’s housing and real estate industry was a scandal-ridden haven for shady realtors, money launderers, and dishonest brokers.
It was only when the political heat got too intense that she did her infamous “180” by reregulating the industry that her government had for so long allowed to run amok, and by blindsiding that sector that contributes so much to B.C. Liberal coffers, with the introduction of the foreign buyers’ tax.
“Nothing to see here”, she bleated, in initially dismissing the ethnic outreach scandal, the health ministry firings scandal, her former chief of staff’s scandalous behaviour, her pathetic attempt to smear the NDP, her government’s never-ending child protection scandals, and assorted other blights on her administration.
That was her position, until all of those controversies proved too politically problematic to ignore. In each instance, Clark was forced into admitting that perhaps all was not right after all in her government’s offensively animated political world.
The Clark government is guided by the gut response to lash out at others for its own failings, to waddle away from problems of its own making, and only lastly to cry “uncle!” on the scandals it authors and typically tries to stoically weather.
Pay-to-play fundraisers finally trigger a reaction
So it was with today’s transparent attempt to stop the political pain from the campaign finance boondoggle that was threatening to severely rock Clark’s bid for a new season on B.C. Liberal Comedy Central.
“Nothing to see here” was her party’s pat response to mounting criticisms about its “pay-to-play” fundraisers, its “cash-for-access” mode of governing, and the premier’s $50,000 party-paid “top-up” salary.
“Nothing to see here” was the premier’s yearlong rejoinder to the reams of documented evidence that all pointed to a political funding system that is egregiously beholden to Big Money, a system stacked to the hilt in favour of the governing party.
It was a position that the Clark government laughably tried to maintain even in the face of the Globe and Mail’s shocking revelations that forced an Elections B.C. investigation, which has subsequently been handed over to the cops.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves.
It’s not just politics that has forced the government’s hand. It is also the prospect of having the governing party, and/or its unnamed actors, contributors, or agents, being charged with contraventions of the Election Act—perhaps even the Canadian Criminal Code. And by that, I don’t mean to in any way impugn any individual, as such.
Clark’s new directive calling for an independent review of B.C.’s campaign financing system is a metaphorical “love letter” to the RCMP that silently pleads for forgiveness for any unintended wrongdoing by her party that may be unearthed by its investigation.
Reading between the lines of that directive, it is certainly an admission of guilt by the government that it failed to act as it should have done, in previously launching such a review.
Yet it is also a very public message to the RCMP.
It implies that whatever illegal actions may have transpired, if any, they all stand to be corrected going forward, by a nonpartisan effort to fix whatever needs fixing in the current system that is so fixed in favour of the ruling party.
That aside, the Clark government’s most recent about-face is most obviously a death-bed repentance aimed at staving off the public executioner—namely, you, dear voter. It is a classic Clarkian attempt to once again wipe yet another sticky political issue off the table before the election.
It’s a cheap political ploy, no doubt, but will it work? Only if we are dumb enough to fall for it.
I sure hope it doesn’t in any way dissuade the RCMP, the media, or B.C. voters from being as tough on any uncovered abuses as they might have been, if the governing party had not backed away from its belligerent “nothing to see here” posture.
And let’s remember, the mere promise of an independent review portends nothing, necessarily, for a government that has historically shown such contempt for independent advice.
It is just an exercise in avoidance that will not be binding on government and that I wouldn’t bet two cents will be received as such by the only party that is so keen on retaining the stacked system that so deeply pads its pockets.
Premier ignored previous accountability measures
For six years, the Clark government has thumbed its nose at the specific recommendations made by the chief electoral officer, the conflict of interest commissioner, the registrar of lobbyists, and the auditor general.
As I have highlighted in previous articles (see related stories), many of their recommendations specifically related to campaign finance reforms that are already long overdue.
For six years the NDP has been trying to ban Big Money, as it has also called for a review of B.C.’s campaign finance system.
Apologies to B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan, whose appeals for reform have been laudable, but we don’t actually need to waste untold thousands or millions of tax dollars to conduct a review that will almost certainly only tell us what we already know.
I get that you don’t want to be put on the pin in advance of an election for advocating more public subsidies for the political process, for valid reasons I outlined in my previous article. But with respect, we would all be better off with a clear plan for campaign finance reform.
In any case, as I have extensively outlined, we already know that the system is broken. The issue of campaign finance reform should be put on the front burner in the upcoming election. The case for reform is urgent and crystal clear.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The solutions are obvious. For the most part, they are tried and true. They have also been long ago instituted in almost every other Canadian jurisdiction, with relatively subtle variations.
Let’s just get on with acting on them, for God’s sake.
And while we’re at it, let’s all remember this. The Election Act already prescribes that any political contribution or its equivalent value that was made or accepted in contravention of the act, must be returned to the contributor within 30 days after the financial agent becomes aware of the contravention.
Call it a 30-day “money-back guarantee”, if you will. Yet one that is supposed to guarantee to all British Columbians that no party will be allowed to inappropriately profit, even temporarily, from donations that it knows or should have known were illegally offered and/or received.
It has already been 10 days since the Globe’s story broke, on March 3. It specifically identified three instances totaling $137,000 worth of donations to the B.C. Liberals from three individuals that, as described, would appear to have clearly contravened the Election Act.
As such, surely those amounts should have to be repaid by that party. And they are just the tip of the iceberg.
All parties can stand up for transparency and ethics
The clock is ticking. Rather than a political hedging strategy, what I want from the Clark government and from all leaders is an unqualified commitment to action, to uphold the law that is already in place.
Will they each pledge today that their parties will move Heaven and Earth to identify any contributions that were inappropriately made or accepted, dating back to 2005, as opposed to just in the past few years?
Will they commit to publicize the names of the individuals making any such unlawful contributions, along with the aggregate values of those donations? And more importantly, to repay those amounts in full, within 30 days, as the act requires?
Will they commit to contact every single individual donor dating back to 2005, the first year for which the annual financial disclosures are publicly available? It only takes a letter or a phone call.
Will they inform them of the legal prohibition against indirect contributions and implore them to immediately contact both their parties and the RCMP if any such donations were unlawfully made?
Will they commit to publicly tabling regular monthly reports on their findings, including an update in the final week of the election campaign?
And will they commit to change the law, to forbid anyone who has made a contribution that was subsequently found to be in contravention of the Election Act from making any further political contributions to any party or candidate for at least four years? And in the interim, will the leaders commit to not accepting any such illicit contributions from any individual or organization that were so identified and returned by their parties?
That would be real transparency, not the phony transparency that the Clark government’s bill today offers. And it would show a serious commitment to upholding the law that puts the parties’ money where their leaders’ mouths are.