Martyn Brown: A hideous display of wrong-headed hubris from B.C. politicians

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      Good news, racists, homophobes, antivaxxers, pro-lifers, Trumpian “truthers”, carbon-tax haters and climate change deniers, NIMBYists, gun-toaters, and white supremacists all—it’s official.

      You can now start your own provincial political party and we, the taxpayers, will forever pay it $1.75 for every vote it receives—each and every year, indexed to inflation.

      That is, provided your party can garner at least two percent of the valid votes cast in all electoral districts in a provincial election, or five percent of that vote in the electoral districts in which it endorsed candidates.

      I mean, how hard could that be in this day and age, where more than a handful of B.C. voters think the likes of Mad Max Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada best represent their views and ideology?

      Bernier’s PPC got 4.9 percent of the vote in B.C. in the recent federal election. Sixteen of its candidates received more than five percent of the valid votes cast, including in every single electoral district in the North and Interior.

      Overall, 109,676 British Columbians voted for the PPC on September 20, 2021. If that party ever ran candidates provincially and even matched that result, at $1.75 per vote, it would be entitled to $191,933 in free public cash. Each and every year. Courtesy of thee and me. 
      Plus, we taxpayers would be on the hook for paying half of the eligible election expenses for any those PPC candidates who received at least 10 percent of the vote. Might not be many or any; but who knows, with our public cash to help their efforts, might be quite a few who are entitled to that public gift.

      Who knows how many more votes a party of its ilk might attract provincially in B.C., supported by untold thousands of dollars of taxpayer “contributions” to subsidize their fear mongering, hate mongering, “truth telling”, “freedom fighting”, etc., etc., etc.?

      But wait, it gets better, you disaffected, decidedly illiberal and righteously regressive and increasingly alienated, unrepresented masses.

      On top of that subsidy, we the taxpayers will reimburse both your party and any or all of its candidates for up to 50 percent of their election expenses. Again, provided the party receives at least five percent of the total votes and its candidates receive at least 10 percent of the valid votes cast in their constituency.

      All thanks to the NDP, B.C. Liberals, and B.C. Greens, who voted unanimously to entrench that entitlement in similarly padding their own pockets under Bill 27, the Election Amendment Act.

      All in the name of keeping democracy safe for us all, don’t you know, or more accurately, safe for themselves.

      Those MLAs just want to ensure that political parties have the cash they need to “fairly” compete and consolidate their own power, without relying on deep-pocketed corporations, unions, or individuals.

      How progressive. Not.

      A B.C. version of Maxime Bernier could exploit the new rules to raise a fair amount of cash for a new right-wing party.

      A reverse protection racket?

      The mainstream parties must be thinking they died and went to heaven in voting themselves such a lucrative, nonstop, publicly financed gravy train. Over the last three years alone, it has cost taxpayers over $16 million, just for the annual party subsidies.

      Tack on another $7 million or so for election-expense reimbursements every four years or sooner, if the NDP government opts to call another snap election before the legally scheduled election date.

      It’s like the political equivalent of a reverse protection racket.

      Give us your money, they demand, because it’s the law, now and forever.

      It’s for our mutual protection, you understand—the parties, especially—justified as the price of enlightened democracy that owes no favours to anyone, we involuntary “contributors” least of all.

      And what do we get in return?

      Why, “healthy” political parties, of course. Whether we support them or what they purport to stand for, or not.

      Why not just spend a lot less on party workers, offices, and equipment, polling, unwelcomed advertising, and assorted other activities aimed at winning our votes, you say?

      Perish the thought.

      Why would we lowly voters give a crap that those same self-interested elected representatives have used their legislative votes to pour millions of our tax dollars into their parties’ coffers?

      Why should we lose any sleep if they legally oblige us all to pay half of their individual election expenses, without a word of opposition?

      Please. Many of the world’s most progressive havens are similarly shelling out their tax dollars to parties of every ideological stripe. Why wouldn’t we all want that for us in B.C.?

      Should work like a charm for all concerned, particularly in the absence of proportional representation, our elected provincial representatives in government and its official opposition agree.

      P.R. certainly would have made it even easier for other new and smaller political players to cut into the major parties’ action. It would have made it easier for those “minor parties” to win more votes, and to thereby scoop more of the available taxpayer-funded cash pool at the two main parties’ expense.

      A pox on all their houses, I say.

      Every penny of all those public subsidies for parties and candidates will mean less money for apparently “lesser priorities”—like health care, education, child protection, affordable housing, or income supports. It will mean less money as well for combating climate action, for tackling the deadly curse of opioid addictions, or for advancing reconciliation, or for countless other critically important human needs.
      Those millions of tax dollars will instead go each year into the politicians’ party coffers, because they decided that’s really the most important priority, in our collective public interest.
      Remember that the next time you see any party’s election ads, campaign signs, bumper stickers, brochures, T-shirts, fridge magnets, or other campaign propaganda. 
      Remember it when their campaign pollsters, robo callers and data miners hound you for info and support.
      In some small way, you’re potentially paying for half of that cost. And also, for perhaps the lion’s share of that party’s ongoing annual source of revenue. 
      All because the B.C. NDP, Liberals and Greens have all quietly agreed that you should, forever. And because their law says you must. Democracy be damned.
      Election subsidies come in many forms.
      Charlie Smith

      Undermining progress

      As with so many initiatives, the Horgan administration and both opposition parties have thus compromised their integrity and what was otherwise one of the former’s most laudable achievements.

      Namely, the new campaign-finance regime that the NDP introduced in 2017, which I mostly supported in an extensive critique.

      In that long analysis, I also urged the premier to reconsider his sneaky and dishonest betrayal on public subsidies for political parties.

      Don’t get me wrong, I still strongly support the Horgan government’s long overdue efforts to ban private donors from unduly influencing political decisions and electoral outcomes, as they did for so long.

      That Election Amendment Act, 2017 was and remains a major step forward in modernizing B.C.’s campaign and party financing regime, despite its many flaws.

      I articulated and sought to remedy 14 such shortcomings in my article at the time in the Straight, sadly, if entirely predictably, to no avail.

      This time, I won’t be so charitable. Because much to my chagrin as one of its most vocal supporters in its early days, the Horgan government has repeatedly proved that its word is utterly worthless when it comes to shoring up its partisan self-interest.

      Nothing demonstrated that fact more clearly than its opportunistic snap election.

      It was only called to gain more unchecked power, in the midst of a pandemic. In contempt of the set election date law that it passed. And in gross violation of the confidence and supply agreement that it solemnly swore to abide by in gaining the Greens’ trust and support.

      Worked like a hot-damn, as the polls suggested it would, thanks in no small measure to the vital role that Dr. Bonnie Henry indirectly played in essentially blessing that power play instead of acting earlier and more forcefully in almost all respects to bend the COVID curve as she might have.

      Since pulling that stunt, B.C.'s premier has doubled down on such abuses of power by doing precisely the opposite of what he promised on so many issues.

      Most notably, perhaps, in his government’s egregious assault on the freedom-of-information regime that his party vowed to strengthen during their long winter in opposition.

      Leave it to Canada’s self-proclaimed most progressive government to pre-empt the all-party committee’s pending legislative review of that law. Instead, the NDP imposed its amendments in flagrant disregard for the criticisms of Bill 22 levelled by the independent Information & Privacy Commissioner and so many others.

      The response from the public on that issue to date? One giant, collective snore.

      By and large, the public either isn’t much aware or simply doesn’t much care that the Horgan government is determined to impose punitive new fees on freedom-of-information requests for the taxpayers’ own information.

      Most voters either don’t know or just don’t give a damn that B.C.’s governing party further plans to exempt the Premier’s Office from certain elements of that law, as but one of many more “troubling concerns” that the commissioner has condemned.

      The public, by and large, doesn't pay attention to legislature debates about inside-the-beltway issues like freedom-of-information rules.
      Stephen Hui

      The political benefits of lying

      What has the B.C. NDP learned from those examples and from their duplicity on publicly subsidized political financing?

      It is that lying works very well indeed, politically.

      Especially if it’s in regard to such “inside the beltway” issues as fixed-election dates, freedom-of-information rules, or party financing. Precious few voters really much care about such concerns, no matter how they are deceived, betrayed, and taken for suckers.

      Especially in the midst of this ongoing, all-consuming pandemic, which has rendered the very notion of political accountability a whimsical irrelevance for most voters.

      As Vaughn Palmer recently observed in a Sun column:

      “In [the 2017] provincial election, Horgan denied he planned to subsidize political parties, branding the accusation ‘more distortion, more fabrication, more making stuff up,’ by then premier Christy Clark.”

      “On becoming premier, [Horgan] reversed himself, claiming the subsidy was ‘a transition fund and it will be gone by the end of this mandate.’ ”

      “Four years after Premier John Horgan promised the annual taxpayer subsidy for political parties would be only temporary, the New Democrats, B.C. Liberals and Greens have combined forces to make it permanent.”

      The lie worked, time and time again. Big time.

      Apart from the additional public subsidies those parties and their candidates received for their 2019 election expense reimbursements, the parties’ annual publicly funded windfalls are worth their weight in gold, as reported by Elections B.C.

      Over the last three years alone, B.C. taxpayers have “contributed” nearly $7 million to the NDP, about $6.5 million to the B.C. Liberals, and over $2.7 million to the B.C. Greens.

      This year, the NDP has collected nearly $1.6 million in public subsidies, while the B.C. Liberals have received almost $1.2 million. The B.C. Greens have been given almost $500,000.

      Neither the Conservatives nor the Rural B.C. Party elected anyone, but even they got some free dough: almost $63,000 for the former and $1,300 for the latter.

      Imagine if those parties join forces under some provincial equivalent of the People’s Party next around, let alone with a compelling populist leader.

      I’m guessing that B.C.’s progressives would be the first to cry foul. They would rightly demand they should not be forced to help finance any such extremist political movement with their tax dollars.

      And they would be right, if too late in finding their more principled voice to matter.

      Hell, I can almost imagine the smile on Aaron Gunn’s supremely confident young face in his quest to “Bring back common sense” after being rejected by the B.C. Liberals from entering that party’s leadership race. Ostensibly, for his past statements on social media.

      He or someone like him might not have much chance at forming a government anytime soon. But their mission just got a whole lot easier, to the extent that they can now bank on our tax dollars for some support if they can only carve out two percent of the valid votes cast provincially, or five percent in any given riding, in future elections.

      Want to bet it will happen before 2030?

      I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t, given all the socioeconomic cleavages that are becoming ever easier to politically exploit.

      Climate action and carbon taxes. COVID and other growing public health stresses. Housing challenges, fiscal management choices, inflation issues, resource management, UNDRIP implications—take your pick, the fault lines are growing and bound to widen with public funding for anyone with a populist axe to grind and a motivated voter market to match.

      Talk about ironic. Most of those “common sense” types are also typically the last ones who would ever support publicly funding political parties. I’ll wager Gunn, for one, is against them.

      Hell, the antitax crowd might even try to make scrapping those subsidies a winning political issue in some future taxpayer revolt, which I submit is sure to emerge when the long-term price of today’s runaway spendthrift approach to deficit financing truly comes home to roost.

      Sure, the annual taxpayer-funded subsidies did decline from initially $2.50 per vote to $1.75 per vote currently, as the 2017 law prescribed. But don’t tell me that at that level, which is destined to rise with inflation, it won’t create new incentive and resources for so-called fringe parties.

      If and when they ever win even tiny slices of the popular votes, and maybe even some seats in Victoria, it will be the major parties that will most feel the pinch.

      That pressure could come from the left just as easily as from the right, to the extent that ideological rigidity increasingly rules the day. Across the spectrum, there are votes to be won at the expense of the large “big tent” parties that tend to alienate their own fringe support bases, in pursuit of the holy-grail centre.

      That partisan fissuring will be largely paid for by us: the helpless, hopeless, feckless, disengaged, disinterested, and willfully deceived taxpayers.

      In some ways, it would serve them all right—the NDP, Liberals and Greens alike.

      They all forfeited their moral compass when they locked arms in a world-class conflict of interest to pad their pockets with public cash. And worse yet, in the midst of a pandemic, when they rightly gambled that they could get away with it without any political push-back.

      For the NDP and Liberals especially, it’s simply unforgiveable.

      The NDP promised that it wouldn’t make us all pay for public subsidies to its or any other party in properly putting an end to large private donations from the private sector.

      The government misled us all into believing that its “transitional” public funding regime would be temporary. It was sold as only a bridge measure that would most likely end next year.

      The Liberals aren’t much better. They voted against that initial framework and purported to oppose it in 2017, before they got hooked on the free cash it provided after being enacted in law.

      Consider this: Webster’s defines embezzlement as “theft or misappropriation of funds placed in one's trust or belonging to one's employer”.

      It defines fraud as “the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another”.

      Clearly, nothing our elected representatives has done in this instance would constitute either embezzlement or fraud in the criminal sense.

      Nevertheless, it’s politically criminal in my mind that we, the people—who elect every individual in the legislature to supposedly represent our public interests first and foremost as their collective de facto “employers”—somehow don’t think it’s a big deal when they openly vote to spend our tax dollars for their own partisan advantage.

      Particularly when they do that in violation of their electoral commitments in also determining what level their pecuniary gain should be, without any independent oversight, safeguards, or checks and balances. It’s outrageous.

      There ought to be a word to describe that democratically masked misappropriation of public funds, which we as their de facto employers place in their trust. Or better yet, there should be a law to prevent that from ever happening.

      Ditto for the political crime of using such dishonest methods to take that thing of value from us—our precious tax dollars.

      Yet they have all conspired to do just that, contrary to what at least two of those politicians and parties promised, mostly to benefit themselves and to advance their own partisan interests.

      Remember, it’s not like the parties don’t already also benefit from that other massive hidden public subsidy, otherwise known as the political contribution tax credit (P.C.T.C.).

      That tax expenditure grants individual donors an income tax credit equal to 75 percent of any political contributions up to $100, plus 50 percent of any contributions between $100 and $550, plus 33.3 percent of any contributions in excess of $550, up to a maximum total credit of $500. 

      That provincial tax credit is aimed at making it easier to attract political contributions from individuals. It effectively constitutes an indirect hidden subsidy to the parties that costs B.C. taxpayers about $3 to $4 million a year.

      Shouldn’t that be enough? Damn right, I say.

      Or shouldn’t that tax credit at least be scrapped if we are to blithely carry on directly subsidizing the political parties and candidates with millions of dollars annually and paying half of their election expenses?

      I certainly think so, but the chances of that happening are between slim and zero.

      In the broader context, such “mere millions” of tax dollars are barely chump change in any multibillion-dollar budget that never has enough to properly fund so many basic human and social needs.

      We’re too used to abuse, too tolerant of lying, too inured to such political chicanery, and too distracted by so many more pressing matters to raise much of a fuss about this kind of thing.

      It’s a sad indictment of democracy in the digital age.

      Which may be yet one more reason why democracies everywhere are now under such stress as they sag under their own complacency and indifference.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at