Martyn Brown: At what point does vote-buying become illegal in B.C.?

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      Vote-buying: it is as old as democracy. 

      And we love it.

      At least, we tend to reward it and even demand it of all parties, as long as it is done brazenly and bribes us with our own tax dollars. And we tend to punish those who don’t play ball, or who break the law that effectively only outlaws vote-buying paid for with private cash or inducements.

      All parties have taken vote-buying to a level in this B.C. election. It ought to be criminal.

      Who’s the worst and who’s the best at exploiting that tried-and-true political “dark art” with which I was so intimately familiar as one of its sorriest practioners in decades past? 

      We will decide. All of us. The ones who stand to directly benefit from those bribes designed to win our votes, no matter which party and leader are elected.

      Although, at this point in the campaign, the polls suggest John Horgan’s New Democrats are simply much better at buying us with our own money than Andrew Wilkinson’s B.C. Liberals, while Sonia Furstenau’s B.C. Greens are being left in the dust for their relative “restraint”.

      All of those parties and leaders are all too happy to shell out as need be to lure us into their shiny “safe” vehicles. And we are all too willing to help them betray our trust and take us for a ride that we will live to regret, if the latest Angus Reid poll is any guide.

      Of the issues that British Columbians identified as being the most important to them in that survey, only three percent said “ethics and integrity”.

      And on that issue, 23 percent felt that Horgan’s NDP “would be best”, with 17 percent choosing the B.C. Greens, and only nine percent saying Wilkinson’s Liberals. 

      The winner was “none of them”, with 31 percent and the other 20 percent choosing “not sure/can’t say”.

      I dare say, this election might be the worst ever in terms of ethics and integrity, insofar as vote-buying is concerned.

      It begs the question: at what point does that practice become illegal in B.C.? It’s hard to fathom.

      Dangle a $10 bill in front of a homeless person to get them to cast a secret ballot and under B.C.’s Election Act it could get you fined up to $20 000, imprisoned for up to two years, and also prohibited from sitting in the legislature for up to seven years.

      But dangle a $1,000 cash bribe in front of all families who aren’t “rich” as the NDP defines them, or a $500 cheque for individuals—in the midst of a global pandemic and using taxpayers’ money—and we reward that as “smart politics”.

      Brilliant strategy, the pundits will almost certainly agree, if Horgan’s party triumphs with a record number of NDP MLAs, as it is now poised to do.

      Give a panhandler $10 to vote and you'll be punished; promise everyone $1,000 and you'll be rewarded.
      Nick Fewings/Unsplash

      Cashing in on COVID at election time

      Bravo, John. How fortunate for you that your “agonizing” about calling a snap election that no one wanted, and playing your B.C. Greens “partners” and all of us for suckers, will soon be so handsomely vindicated with perhaps the largest NDP majority in B.C. history.

      How smarter yet of you to withhold that COVID cash from those families in need, who have been desperately scrambling to make ends meet for many months.

      How brilliant to hold out that assistance out as a conditional reelection inducement that will only be granted if your party prevails. 

      After all, it’s one thing to lead a horse to water with a ten-spot, but quite another to lead a whole herd to do your bidding and help satiate their thirst with a $1,000 drink at the public trough, no matter what shape they are in.

      Oh, and the capper? Elect you and the life-saving COVID vaccine will also be offered free of charge—as if any of the parties would ever dare charge for that “privilege” that the NDP has now so disgustingly politicized along with the whole public health effort to fight that virus. 

      So clever, Dishonest John. He sure beat “Low Ball” Andy at his own game. 

      I mean, under Wilkinson’s vote-buying scheme to relieve us all of the provincial sales tax for a year and then restore it to less than half its current rate, we would have to shell out $14,290 to get a $1,000 “savings” in PST. 

      Who can afford that? And how long would it take to spend that much?

      Again, we would only get Wilkinson’s rich cash reward if we actually vote for his party—which is so much better at pleading poor. Particularly, when it comes to funding the crucial public services that we would effectively be electing the B.C. Liberals and other future governments to cut as the price of our greed and momentary indulgence.

      Hell, the NDP’s cash bribe will only put our province $1.4 billion deeper in the hole.  

      A pittance, compared to the $20 billion in debt that the Liberals’ PST boondoggle would cost us before the next election.

      You tell me, what’s more corrupt? 

      Secretly planning a snap election that you promised not to impose and that the law you amended assures won’t be held for another year? Least of all, by putting people’s lives at risk from a killer virus?

      Or lying about holding out billions in dollars of emergency funding approved by all parties to help small businesses survive and families, to instead buy votes and only deliver that needed help many months later, and only if we reward Horgan for his nefarious deed?

      “What, me, dishonest or corrupt?” Horgan basically said. Why, that $1,000 cash-bribe didn’t even occur to him until just a few days ago!

      Let’s give him the undeserved benefit of our doubt.  

      Let’s pretend he was just that stupid and only realized after all we’ve endured that giving some families extra help just might be a good idea. 

      Who knows, maybe he isn’t the cynical, dishonest and opportunistic cheat that his actions belie, and he really did only decide to engage in that shameless act of vote-buying after Wilkinson made his PST pledge.  

      Who’s most despicable? Who cares.

      It’s all good, according to the law, confusing as that may be, in view of what it actually says.

      Markus Winkler/Unsplash

      What the law says

      Section 255 of the Act reads as follows:

      (1) An individual or organization must not pay, give, lend or procure inducement for any of the following purposes:

      (a) to induce an individual to vote or refrain from voting;

      (b) to induce an individual to vote or refrain from voting for or against a particular candidate or a candidate for a particular political party;

      (c) to reward an individual for having voted or refrained from voting as described in paragraph (a) or (b).

      (2) An individual must not accept inducement

      (a) to vote or refrain from voting,

      (b) to vote or refrain from voting for or against a particular candidate or a candidate for a particular political party, or

      (c) as a reward for having voted or refrained from voting as described in paragraph (a) or (b).

      (3) An individual or organization must not advance, pay or otherwise provide inducement, or cause inducement to be provided, knowing or with the intent that it is to be used for any of the acts prohibited by this section.

      (4) An individual or organization must not offer, agree or promise to do anything otherwise prohibited by this section.

      (5) An individual or organization prohibited from doing something by this section must not do the prohibited act directly, indirectly or by another individual or organization on behalf of the individual or organization who is subject to the prohibition.

      (6) During a campaign period, a candidate must not make a special contribution or special donation for any purpose, other than a political contribution, and an individual or organization must not solicit such a contribution or donation from a candidate. 

      Got that?

      Nowhere is it clear that if you do any of the above with taxpayers’ money, it is also illegal. 

      Because it’s not. All’s fair in politics, if you simply promise to do those things only if they work as intended and with public money, as part of a campaign.

      “Oh well, that’s politics” we all scoff, before we offend the letter and spirit of sec. 2 of that election law, and happily take those bribes that our votes effectively reward and deliver. 

      And then we wonder why our politicians are “so dishonest”. 

      Fact is, we lie to ourselves by ignoring our own complicity in that old corrupt political game that now has the parties outbidding each other as never before in history to buy our support.

      Free everything, please. 

      By all means, let’s reward the party that won’t spend what it takes to keep students, teachers, and school support workers safe, or use the emergency funding it was granted to save businesses and families from bankruptcy.

      Let's reward that premier who will hand out $1,000 cheques to everyone, but only if his government is reelected for playing politics with British Columbians’ lives in the face of the pandemic, whether or not they really need that funding that others so desperately did and do.

      Hang on—he’s not done yet. There’s another $3 billion a year to sweeten the pot even more, for whatever infrastructure buys the most votes in swing ridings—hospitals, schools, transportation—whatever it takes to win.

      Horgan hasn’t quite figured out yet what projects will yield the most votes after being in charge over the last three-and-a-half years. Wasn’t in his COVID recovery plan that he released only days before the surprise election that even caught him off-guard, but what the hell, let’s see Wilkinson trump that for a blank cheque.


      Door Number 1 or Door Number 2?

      No? The NDP not your ideological cup of tea?

      Then let’s reward that opposition party that has decided no amount of bribery is too great to risk being out-bribed by the one that now looks to be a shoo-in for its mastery of duplicity, chicanery, and ruthless political gamesmanship.

      Let’s reward the guy who wants to especially reward his rich friends and neighbours—Shaughnessy’s Great White Knight who won’t be outbid by anyone so devoid of principle.

      The one who would be king, who stands to give his wealthy supporters untold thousands of dollars in tax savings. 

      To reduce their property taxes. To help them reap greater windfalls in selling their multimillion-dollar homes. And to buy those things that are so essential to survive this global health crisis. 

      Like luxury cars, yachts, and by all means, the finest furniture and appliances money can buy.

      And let’s do this, please, when our province is suddenly swimming in red ink, with more direct debt accumulated in this one fiscal year than from all of the combined accumulated deficits from all previous years when that operating debt was at its worst. 

      Let’s do this, please, without the faintest clue how we and future generations will be forced to repay that debt, when the shit hits the fan, as it surely will, a few years hence. 

      Ninety miles an hour down a dead-end street: that’s the ticket. We owe it to ourselves as our unavoidable gift to the politicians who will make damn sure we benefit, no matter who we choose.

      Free everything, I say. Promise me more.

      Free child care, B.C. Greens? 

      Bring it on, but only if you hold the balance of power.

      But why only a four-day work week? Why work at all? Why not give us all the guaranteed universal minimum income that we should all want and expect when money is no object?

      Over to you, Low Ball Andy. 

      Horgan only promises to freeze rent for a year and give most renters the $400 he previously promised and failed to deliver, beyond his $1,000 COVID cash offer for reelecting his government.

      There’s your opening Andy. Perhaps the ink isn’t yet dry on your platform?

      Why not dishonestly promise to lower people’s rents, as the Liberals just promised to cut ICBC rates, after driving that company into the ditch and sending B.C. motorists’ rates soaring, before David Eby and the NDP put ICBC back in good shape?

      OK, so maybe most of those renters might not be inclined to vote for the Liberal party that was so spectacularly successful at causing the affordable housing crisis in the first place. The one that the Horgan government has done such a wonderful job of solving, along with the homeless crisis and the opioid crisis.

      Surely, Wilkinson’s “more competent” vote-buyers could throw a little more cash the wealthy landlords’ way. Maybe with new cash incentives to help them finance their renovictions?

      No bridge is a bridge too far, shadow-tolled or not, for Wilkinson’s desparados. 

      John Horgan and Andrew Wilkinson are proving that cynicism rules in B.C. politics nowadays.

      When the polls head south on your party, your “North star” is sure to follow. 

      South, far beyond False Creek, to those vote-rich promise lands in south Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey, Delta, White Rock, and all along the Fraser that stand ready to be bought in tribute to the highest bidder.

      South, taking a cue from Trumpland, with unspecified vote-buying promises to shut down tent cities, outlaw peddling, and play “cops and robbers” like no one other, starting with a referendum on policing in Surrey that would neuter its formerly Liberal-aligned local government.

      Not enough, you say? No worries, it’s early days yet.

      A billion more here, a few billion more there, and as they say, pretty soon it will add up to real money.

      All of it, we not only tolerate, but demand of all parties as the price for our votes.

      Honest to God, this is our “brave new world”—a scandalous breach of public trust, of our own making.

      One which we are blithely accepting, if not encouraging, as part and parcel of democracy in the time of COVID.

      It shows, above all, that there are no adults in the room, we aging “boomers” most of all. 

      We are without a doubt the most selfish, shortsighted, and ethically bankrupt generation in human history. 

      Because we’ve seen a frightening glimpse of this movie at least once before, in that distant era of high interest rates and runaway inflation spawned by reckless debt, so much of which was then utterly avoidable, as it is in this election. 

      We know how that movie resolves itself, and it ain’t pretty. Irresponsible and unethical vote-buying just makes it worse.

      I want no part of it.

      And so, for the first time ever in my life, I won’t be casting a ballot. 

      And when Horgan inevitably wins his massive majority, I’ll be donating his bribe for my vote to someone who really needs that money. 

      Maybe to a charity, a school, or a small business, I haven’t decided yet; but I certainly won’t be given a red cent of that dishonest blood money I don’t need to any of the political parties.

      This election, I cannot in good conscience vote for any of the parties, lest it be interpreted in its combined strength in numbers as offering my support for those partisan bribes that only have power as their true object.

      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