It's fair to consider the more than $27-million in taxpayer dollars British Columbia's three main parties will be handed between now and the next election and ask: What happened to all the talk about getting "big money" out of politics?
Certainly, the province's freshly installed NDP government didn't signal in advance that their much-anticipated campaign finance reform, introduced on Monday, would include a dramatic twist: Yes, it bans union and corporate donations and sets individual spending limits at $1,200. But the cash vacuum these new edicts create will be filled, in part, by the taxpayer.
On the contrary, NDP Leader John Horgan said earlier in the year that the public would not be tabbed to pick up any costs associated with the new rules.
It's unfortunate, because the NDP Leader's flip-flop has largely overshadowed what should have been a good day for his government. And the degree to which B.C.'s political system has been improved this week must not be lost in the discussion about whether taxpayers should be footing any of the bill.
I'm not as exercised by the subsidy as others. Yes, Mr. Horgan should have been more forthright about his intentions. There was much suspicion that the New Democrats' partner in their minority government – the three-seat Greens – was behind the move. The Greens, however, insist that is not the case, even though they stand to benefit enormously from the proposed funding method, which dispenses dollars based on votes. (In 2018, that is $2.50 a vote, an amount that declines slightly over the next four years.)
The funding is supposed to help the parties transition to the new policies. After five years, it will be reviewed by an all-party committee of the legislature and, I would hope, ended. This is precisely what happened at the federal level, after new campaign laws were brought in there. The taxpayer subsidy of the national parties was terminated two years ago. Ontario has a new transition taxpayer allowance that is scheduled to end in four years. Meantime, similar subsidies are permanently in place in both Quebec and Prince Edward Island.
Some wonder why the B.C. government didn't just make the parties live within the new limits. I don't think people understand how complex it is to devolve a system that has been entrenched for decades. It isn't done overnight.
The dollar-a-vote amount established in B.C. is high, but no legislation is perfect. And we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture here.
Under the new law, unions and corporations – and the wealthy – won't be allowed to play the outsized role in determining the outcome of elections the way they have been for decades. There are also strict new rules around fundraisers, particularly those attended by a party leader and members of cabinet. There are new ceilings around leadership contests and third-party election advertising. The bill reduces campaign spending by 25 per cent.
Many of these provisions have already been adopted by other provinces. B.C. has been an embarrassing, high-profile holdout. No more.
There are still issues to be addressed, however. Tough new laws are fine but only if there are the resources to ensure they are being followed. As we have seen elsewhere, people will try to find a way around them. A donation limit of $1,500? No problem, says wealthy donor, who ensures his employees contribute the maximum amount to the party or candidate of his choosing, using funds originating from his bank account.
It is known as "funnelling" and it can only be revealed through audits and laws around patron disclosure. For instance, if people are required to divulge where they work, it's easier for staff from the chief electoral office to detect patterns: Thirty people from the same company donating $1,500 to the same candidate. That should set off alarms.
"There is a lot in this legislation that is good," Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch told me. "But there are elements I don't like and there is the whole issue of policing it all. What safeguards are there? That is a big unknown."
It's true. How much power – and staff – B.C.'s chief electoral officer will have to crack down on illicit behaviour is something we don't yet know. And yet it is vital. Otherwise, B.C. could become a campaign-donation laughingstock all over again.