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B.C. election-finance reform: What they say vs. what they mean

Like a lot of people of my generation, I came of age reading Mad magazine under the covers with a flashlight.

I can still sing the Star Trek parody song "A Vulcan's Life is Nothing But a Grind" to the tune of Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind". I can sketch a pretty good Don Martin character.

But my favourite recurring feature in the magazine was "What They Say and What It Really Means."

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It was that era's slightly crude print equivalent of Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah rolling a clip of some appalling newsmaker, stopping it abruptly, looking bewildered, then providing a truthful interpretation of what was just said. It was funny because it was true.

This week, listening to B.C. Liberal MLA and Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson talk about election-finance reform, I found myself thrown back four decades into the pages of Mad, wishing that someone – anyone – would complete the "What It Really Means" half of the equation.

The task finally fell to me.

What They Say: "There's the prospect of vote subsidies which are used in some jurisdictions but we have come to the conclusion that's not an attractive proposition for taxpayers to pay for political parties directly out of their taxes."

What It Really Means: We've already hobbled the independent commission we just announced by limiting what it's allowed to put on the table. It's to our advantage to paint this as an either/or scenario: If corporate donations are banned, your tax dollars will pay directly for election campaigns. Also, we might have a problem with taxpayers funding political parties but we're okay with spending $15-million in taxpayer money on government ads to let everyone know what an awesome job government is doing.

What They Say: "In terms of the timeliness of disclosure which is the subject of our bill before the house right now, providing for 14 days disclosure after the deposit of funds which the Liberal Party is already doing and the NDP have refused to do."

What It Really Means: Don't look over there, look here. Stop talking about the money we take from corporate donors, numbered companies and foreign interests. Stop talking about cash for access. Let me direct your attention to our version of transparency. Of course, we're obligated to report who's giving us money on an annual basis. But reporting it in 14 days makes us look more transparent. Also, "real-time disclosure" sounds amazingly cool. And we get to call out the NDP for not doing the same.

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What They Say: "We need to clear the air on this issue. There's been a lot of coverage of it and the issues are getting somewhat confused and so it's time for an independent look at it."

What It Really Means: We're counting on the public not being smart enough to understand any of this.

What They Say: "This is clearly an issue in the eyes of the media. This issue is current and topical, we need to clear the air, but not in a partisan way. Not in a way that's deemed to be advantageous to one party or another."

What It Really Means: The media may see it as important but we're willing to gamble that the public doesn't care very much about it. It's inside baseball. And seriously, who trusts the media any more? Promising to create an electoral finance commission kicks the can down the road beyond the next election. The commission will be non-partisan, but its recommendations won't be binding, so we're good.

What They Say: "These issues are subject to Charter rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association, which is why the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the pre-election spending limits that this government passed about 10 years ago."

What It Really Means: Let me muddy the issue further by conflating campaign financing with limits on third-party advertising before and during the election period, which is what the courts actually ruled on. I'll insist that they are inextricably linked, and defy anyone to tell the difference between the two.

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What They Say: "A good example is my own dinner held every January in my riding which is open to any and all persons. It's available to purchase a ticket on the website and there is not a single opportunity to make a pitch to me."

What It Really Means: What, me worry?

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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