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Don’t expect B.C. reform bill to curb cash-for-access

It was more than 20 years ago that the B.C. Liberal Party, then in opposition, attacked the NDP government of the day for bestowing special favour upon its "friends and insiders." After 16 years in power, however, the Liberals are entrenched in defending a political fundraising system that sells access and influence to its own friends and insiders.

As early as this week, the B.C. Liberal government will acknowledge demands for campaign finance reform with legislation to improve disclosure of those contributions. Unless they divert wildly from the script laid down by Premier Christy Clark, the bill will not curb the lucrative business of trading cash for access.

A Globe and Mail investigation on Saturday revealed that lobbyists and government consultants, paid by corporations or special-interest groups to try to influence politicians, are milked by the party in power for multiple donations in exchange for a retailed commodity: Access to the Premier and members of her cabinet.

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Globe Investigation: How B.C. lobbyists are breaking one of the province's few political donation rules

Related: Elections B.C. probes Liberal Party fundraising

Gary Mason: Global ridicule won't stop B.C. Liberals' deceitful financing extravaganza

In 2016, the B.C. Liberals raised a total of about $12.4-million in political donations – $4.5-million from individuals and $7.9-million from corporations. The large corporate donations tend to attract the most attention, but lobbyists are making substantial donations with smaller, but frequent, contributions. Those government relations experts in turn sell their political experience to their clients.

Ms. Clark promised campaign-finance disclosure after stories in The Globe and Mail last spring revealed the Liberal Party's fundraising efforts included small, private gatherings with the Premier. Ticket prices reached $10,000 or more.

Last May, Ms. Clark defined the problem as a matter of transparency: "People should be able to see when donations come in to political parties, not just once a year," she told reporters. "It would do a lot to add to the public sense of confidence that political parties are doing the right thing for them."

The legislation that Justice Minister Suzanne Anton is expected to introduce will require political parties to do what the B.C. Liberals currently offer on their website: up-to-date disclosure of donations as they are logged by the party.

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This does not allow the public to see, for example, who has paid $10,000 for a private dinner party with Ms. Clark, much less any disclosure of what the Premier said there. Ms. Clark spoke to 850 party supporters in Victoria on Feb. 14, but her party recorded not a single donation on that day. The name of a former federal Liberal MP who attended that dinner does not appear at all in the February disclosures, likely as he was a guest of someone who bought a table.

NDP leader John Horgan said the B.C. Liberals are deliberately fixing the wrong problem.

"The Liberals are trying to make it sound like they are changing a system that is corrupted by just telling you when they get the money," he said in an interview. "For me, and the people I talk to around British Columbia, it's the concern about the influence of big money on our policy-making."

The New Democrats have promised campaign finance reform if they win the May 9 election, with legislation to ban corporate and union donations, as well as limits on individual donations. Mr. Horgan said the goal is to allow individuals to participate in the democratic process through donations to political parties, "but we would limit that participation so it is equal and fair."

No limits on donations are expected for the election campaign this spring. Ms. Anton says her bill will be limited to requiring more frequent reporting of donations. "The demand from the public was for transparency," she said.

She added that her government has rejected the NDP proposal to limit political contributions because the alternative would be to finance campaigns with public money.

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That is the system in Quebec. In 2015, the last year for which figures are available, Quebec taxpayers gave $9.2-million to the province's 18 registered political parties, an allowance distributed in proportion to the percentage of valid votes garnered in the previous election. It works out to a little more than a dollar for each of the province's 8.2 million citizens.

Would such a model cripple B.C., with its $50-billion annual budget? Just for comparison, the B.C. government expects to spend $15-million by the end of this fiscal year on advertising. With a population of 4.6 million people, that means B.C. taxpayers will pay about $3 each for government ads. A small shift in those priorities could get rid of B.C.'s unseemly cash-for-access system.

But Ms. Anton was clear. Under the B.C. Liberals, that will not fly: "You will know there is not a chance that our government is interested in taxpayer-funded contributions to political parties."

The NDP will not say how much money it raised last year, but Mr. Horgan estimates his party took in, at best, one-third of the $12.4-million the B.C. Liberals got. The governing party will have a considerable advantage in the coming election, and it is no wonder the Liberals are happy with the current model.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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