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B.C. to remain 'wild west' of campaign finance without a new government: experts

Last Updated Apr 28, 2017 at 7:00 am PST

VANCOUVER – Without a change in government, British Columbia is likely to remain a “wild west” of campaign finance, where wealthy corporations and unions are free to donate unlimited amounts of money to curry favour with provincial politicians, experts say.

Voters head to the polls in less than two weeks and the province’s lax political fundraising laws have become a dominant undercurrent in the election campaign.

The province’s two main political parties are swapping accusations that the other is bought and beholden to deep-pocketed donors ahead of the May 9 vote. Corporate and union contributions are banned federally and in some provinces, while many jurisdictions restrict the amount donors can pledge.

Max Cameron, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, said Thursday that the incumbent B.C. Liberals have been in power for 16 years and have shown little interest in reforming political fundraising laws, despite mounting public pressure.

“You need alternation in power. You need to have genuinely competitive elections where governments change,” Cameron said.

“If the government is secure in office it’s unlikely to introduce changes to policies that it benefits from.”

New Democrat Leader John Horgan has said the Liberal party’s funding by corporations is the largest in provincial history, and he accuses it of acting on behalf of its financial backers at the expense of average people.

Liberal Leader Christy Clark has denounced the NDP and its support from big labour, noting that the United Steelworkers Union is paying the salaries of the New Democrats’ top campaign officials.

The B.C. Greens have rejected all corporate and union donations as it bids to expand its lone seat in the legislature.

Hamish Telford, a professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley, said B.C. has lagged behind other provinces because there has been no change in government since campaign-finance reform emerged as an issue in 2004. That was the year former prime minister Jean Chretien amended federal legislation.

Whether the contributions buy influence is not the issue, Telford said.

“The issue is perception.”

The Liberals have said if they win the election they will set up a panel to look into campaign financing.

The NDP promises to ban union and corporate donations the day after forming a government, but it has come under fire for continuing to accept money in the meantime. Horgan said it is necessary to play by the current rules to level the playing field for donations.

But that argument undermines the New Democrats’ alleged commitment to getting big money out of politics, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch.

“If they win power based on those donations, then they have the conflict of interest already. It doesn’t disappear just because they change the system,” Conacher said.

Ontario faced similar criticism around its open campaign-finance laws before the provincial government bowed to public pressure and introduced reforms about a year ago.

Ontario’s about-face is one of the reasons B.C. has faced so much pressure, Conacher added.

Robert MacDermid, an expert in campaign finance who teaches at York University in Toronto, said voter cynicism is one byproduct of a political system that favours access by the wealthy and well-connected.

“I think people understand undue influence. They understand the perception that rich people get specialized access to ministers and premiers,” he said.

Updating political fundraising laws is meaningless unless those reforms are accompanied by the resources needed to enforce them, MacDermid added.

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter