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Long-awaited B.C. legislation on campaign finance reform won't limit donations

B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks to media at her office in Victoria on Feb. 14, 2017. Ms. Clark says her government will introduce legislation on Monday to implement campaign finance reform measures that she promised almost a year ago.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier Christy Clark says her government will introduce legislation on Monday to implement campaign finance reform measures that she promised almost a year ago, but that proposed law will not limit donations to stem the cash-for-access system that helped her party raise more than $12-million last year.

Ms. Clark was commenting for the first time after a Globe and Mail investigation revealed her B.C. Liberal Party collected tens of thousands of dollars in multiple donations from lobbyists who paid under their own names with personal credit cards on behalf of clients and companies and were reimbursed, which is against the law.

Elections B.C. is now looking at potential contraventions involving indirect political donations, a probe that could have repercussions for both the governing B.C. Liberals and the opposition NDP.

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Read more: Elections B.C. probes Liberal Party fundraising

Read more: Wild west: How B.C. lobbyists are breaking one of the province's few political donation rules

With the next provincial election campaign starting in just a few weeks, the governing B.C. Liberals appear unmoved by wide-ranging criticism that the province has fallen behind the country on campaign finance reform, earning a "wild west" reputation for almost unfettered political fundraising.

The Premier told reporters in Victoria her bill will focus on "real time" disclosure of campaign donations. The B.C. Liberal Party began voluntarily posting weekly updates of donations on its website this year. "What you'll see in the bill is essentially what we have talked about already," she said.

Asked if the proposed legislation will include limits on campaign donations – a model adopted federally and by six other provinces – she said: "You won't see that in the legislation on Monday."

The Premier said campaign finance in B.C. can be improved, but she defended the system of voluntary donations, as an alternative to a publicly funded system.

"While the system we have is not perfect and there are lots of things that we can and should do to fix it," she said, "a worse system would be one where the money is not given freely and people are forced to support political parties through their taxes."

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Ms. Clark promised improved campaign finance disclosure last May, after stories in The Globe and Mail last spring revealed Liberal fundraising efforts included small, private gatherings with the Premier with ticket prices of $10,000 a plate or more.

At that time, 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.

The opposition NDP has been aggressively fundraising as well and last year pulled in an estimated $6.2-million in donations. However the New Democrats promise to outlaw corporate and union donations, and to limit contributions, if they win the May 9 provincial election.

"We've tabled six times a bill to get big money out of politics in British Columbia and that's what the Premier needs to do," justice critic Mike Farnworth said in an interview. "Anything less than that falls short."

Mr. Farnworth said campaign finance reform would be a top priority for an NDP government. "B.C. is an outlier compared to the rest of the country. … If we form government on May 9, it will be the first bill that gets tabled, to get big money out of politics."

In The Globe's investigation, lobbyists said they are milked by the party in power for multiple donations in exchange for a commodity they in turn sell to their clients: access to the Premier and members of her cabinet. A number of them complained that they feel "strong-armed" into donating and compelled to contribute for fear of being blacklisted.

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Ted Hughes, a highly regarded arbiter who served as British Columbia's first Conflict of Interest Commissioner, said a limit on campaign contributions in the province would help reduce the potential appearance that donors are seeking to purchase influence with elected officials.

"If a gift is to buy influence, it's against the law. If it has the appearance of buying that influence, then in my view it should be prohibited," Mr. Hughes said in an interview. "One way of avoiding such an appearance would be to set a limit on the amount of donations."

Under the sparse regulation of campaign finance in B.C., the one area where a donor can run afoul of the law is if they make donations in their own name on behalf of clients and companies and are later reimbursed. Both the B.C. Liberals and the provincial New Democratic Party are conducting internal reviews into potential indirect donations.

Martyn Brown, who served as chief of staff to former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, has been a vocal critic of B.C.'s cash-for-access fundraising regime.

"The reason why the Liberals won't bring in limits is because they have a gross strategic advantage that they don't want to forfeit," he said in an interview. He said the Liberals believe they won't lose votes over it. "I think it's going to be a much bigger election issue than the Liberals are imagining and I think they are dreaming in Technicolor if they think their internal polling showing this is not a vote-determining issue will bear out in the campaign."

Mr. Brown predicted Ms. Clark could yet adopt a more reform-minded approach if she feels the public is turning against her so close to an election. "People don't want to be taken for granted," he said. "They are tired of being lied to when [the Liberals] say big money doesn't buy influence, when it does."

With a report from Kathy Tomlinson

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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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