Les Leyne: Clark comes late to donation reform

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Les Leyne mugshot genericThe B.C. Liberals stood pat and did next to nothing as runaway real estate prices turned housing affordability into a crisis. Then last year, the government dove into the fray with several quick and far-reaching measures designed to address the problem in several ways.


Whether they’re working is open for debate, but the Liberals avoided the impression they’re ignoring the problem.


The election-financing controversy is following a similar pattern. Premier Christy Clark clung to the status quo as the concerns escalated and turned into a full-scale political issue. On Monday, her government made the first official moves to dampen concerns.


But with a month until the official election campaign begins, they’re leaving themselves a lot less time for the responses to take hold in voters’ minds. And the moves are a lot milder than the sudden frantic attack on the housing problem.


The amendment to the Election Act introduced Monday requires more immediate public reporting of political donations, so voters can see who is donating to any party and when, within two weeks of the contribution.


Liberals have been doing so since January and now it will be required of any major party. The nature of the transaction, whether it’s a donation, a ticket to an event or a sponsorship, will be disclosed.


Fundraising functions — where donors pay big bucks to chat with politicians — have drawn a lot of the interest over the past year. The bill requires that they must be posted on parties’ websites within five days.


The wide-open, no-limit donation system will stay as is. You’ll just be able to see it in action in something close to real time.


But its days might be numbered. Coincidental with the bill, Clark announced she has asked the deputy attorney general to set up a framework for an independent, non-partisan panel to review electoral financing and make recommendations for reform.


Given the climate across Canada for stringent new limits on donations and fundraising events, it’s likely an independent panel will conclude that major reforms are necessary in B.C.


It reached the point of no return last week, with news that Elections B.C. has turned over to the RCMP a probe of some lobbyists who routinely mask corporate donations to the B.C. Liberal Party.


The NDP’s long-standing bill to ban union and corporate donations has a similar provision for an independent review. So it’s going to happen regardless of who wins the election. The looming arguments will be about how far each version of a review goes in bringing B.C. in line with the rest of the country.


Clark has imposed two kickers on her version of the review. The first is that any recommendations that parties become eligible for taxpayer financing will not be accepted. Taxpayers funded federal parties to the tune of $100 million in the last election, and Clark said it’s “way too much.”


The second is that any panel recommendations would have to be approved unanimously. That could derail any reform effort, although it’s likely two years off.


The panel idea has the attraction of removing self-interested politicians from the picture.


Clark said there’s no benefit to having the government devise reform measures.


“Voters would like to have it out of the hands of politicians,” she said, because the bills would reflect the views of parties that have an interest in advantaging themselves and disadvantaging opponents.


The more immediate goal is to give the Liberals something to point to during the campaign when campaign financing comes up.


As it stands, the NDP is advocating a ban on union and corporate donations (which it currently accepts) and a comprehensive review of financing law, including the idea of putting limits on individual donations.


The B.C. Greens, who already refuse corporate and union donations, advocate for that, as well as a ban on out-of-province donations.


And independent MLA Vicki Huntington advocates all that, as well as a $1,500 limit on individuals and a ban on cabinet ministers attending fundraisers.


B.C. Liberals finally have a stance on financing reform, but it’s still a relatively weak one.


lleyne@timescolonist.com

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