Editorial: Reform political donation rules


The people of the province will have to drag Premier Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals inch by inch toward reforming our political-party financing.

Clark is doing everything she can to avoid giving up those fat corporate donations, so only constant pressure and the looming election have forced her to make any changes to a system that has benefited her party richly.

The latest move was her call on Monday to create an independent panel to review election-financing rules. To make that happen, the deputy attorney general will investigate ways to establish a non-partisan group and report back this summer.

By summer, of course, the election will be over. Meanwhile, Clark can point to this panel whenever uncomfortable questions come up before or during the campaign.

To add to the impression that she is taking action, the government also introduced legislation Monday that would require political parties to report donations within 14 days of their deposit. The bill lowers the threshold for reporting from a single donor to $100 from $250 and requires parties to post fundraising functions within five days of an event. The bill died when the session ended.

The fundraiser aspect addresses another problem: Lobbyists making donations under their own names, for instance by buying tickets to fundraisers, and then getting reimbursed by clients. Chief electoral officer Keith Archer said indirect donations are prohibited by the Election Act.

His office opened an investigation into the practice, but has turned it over to the RCMP.

Regardless of the outcome of that probe, cash-for-access fundraisers, where people donate hefty sums to meet the premier and ministers, rub many voters the wrong way. Such events suggest that money buys a sympathetic hearing from politicians that ordinary voters would never get.

While politicians deny any linkage, voters know from their own experience that money talks, and these exclusive gatherings just reinforce public suspicion of political leaders.

That suspicion applies to the whole system of political donations. Opposition parties and voters have pushed the government to pull politicians away from their dependence on donations from large organizations.

Last month, NDP Leader John Horgan introduced a bill to ban corporate and union donations. It was the sixth time the Opposition has brought in such a bill since 2005. The Green Party prohibited such donations last year.

Clark and the Liberals, however, refuse to countenance such a reform. That’s not surprising, given that the party raised $52.3 million from just 285 donors between 2005 and 2015, according to IntegrityBC.

Instead, the Liberals have trumpeted their new transparency, posting their donations online quickly instead of forcing voters to wait months to discover who has been handing over cheques.

Transparency is welcome, but does not fix the problem. We are certainly better off knowing which deep pockets are funding our politicians, but it would be much better if those pockets were not contributing at all or were limited to the same small sums that ordinary folk can shell out.

Clark persists in painting this as a choice between corporate donations and taxpayer funding of political parties. Indeed, she warned that the finance-reform committee must not recommend taxpayer funding.

That is misdirection. It is possible to fund political parties with small donations from individuals and groups, without dipping into the public purse. Former U.S. president Barack Obama raised $115 million US from people who donated less than $200 each in 2008.

Clark is no Obama, but even if donations drop without the corporate bankroll, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Massively expensive election campaigns are a blight on democracy.

The premier, however, has given ample evidence that she won’t willingly give up the big money. Voters will have to keep pushing.

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