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Money & politics (2): How to fix B.C.’s corrupt political fundraising system

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark in Vancouver last month.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Until last week, politicians in British Columbia could console themselves that theirs was not the only large province to be clinging to a discredited, undemocratic practice. But now that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has said her government will table a bill this spring banning corporate and union donations to political parties, B.C. is all on its own.

B.C. law allows corporations, unions and individuals to make unlimited donations to political parties. Every donation must be recorded, and any over $250 must have the donor's name attached to it. The disclosures are made public, but the disclosures are not particularly useful.

All donations from 2015 were put online at the Elections BC website at the start of April. That means British Columbians are only finding out now, for instance, that Encana, the Alberta-based oil and natural gas company, gave the party $50,000 on Dec. 22, and a grand total of $92,925 for the year.

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Whether these or any of the other disclosed corporate donations were linked to the kind of private, high-cost, access-for-cash dinners that Liberal Premier Christy Clark routinely attends with wealthy donors is not made clear.

What the disclosures do accomplish is to leave voters with the impression the Liberals are in the pocket of corporations and wealthy donors. The ruling party has raised $10.4-million in the past two years from corporate donors, and another $6.8-million from individuals who gave an average of $1,362 each.

In 2015 alone, the party took in $5.3-million from corporations and $3.4-million in individual donations of more than $250. A few individual donors gave as much as $25,000, $35,000 and even $60,000. But the party received a relatively small sum in individual donations of less than $250 – $535,552, to be exact. And unions gave it a mere $24,075.

Contrast this to the opposition NDP. It took in $3.1-million in donations in 2015. A total of $2.5-million came in individual donations, including $1.4-million in donations of less than $250. Trade unions donated $375,000, while corporations donated $148,000.

This is a deep divide. On the one hand, B.C. has a governing party beholden to corporate interests. On the other, there is an opposition party that relies on small donations from individuals and union support.

This is very much like Alberta was prior to last year. For more than 40 years, the Progressive Conservative Party ruled the province with the help of donations from the corporate world. That came to a crashing halt when the NDP was elected in 2015. One of the first orders of business for the new government was to end corporate and union donations, as Ottawa had done a decade earlier.

One day, a B.C. government will inevitably do the same. No party governs forever. The NDP says it would ban union and corporate donations, which with any luck will be in its platform for the election in May of next year.

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But Premier Christy Clark could do the right thing now, as Premier Wynne has promised to do in Ontario. She should, because her party's arguments for refusing to reform the system are demonstrably wrong.

Ms. Clark insists that disclosure is an adequate way of ensuring nothing untoward is going on. On the contrary, all disclosure proves is that the governing party is overwhelmingly reliant on the financial support of the business sector.

Government House Leader Mike de Jong insists that B.C. will not ban corporate donations because he says it would mean replacing the lost income with public subsidies. But the federal parties saw their per-vote subsidies phased out last year, and they have had no trouble raising money from individual donors. It is a falsehood for Mr. de Jong to claim this can't be done in B.C.

The B.C. government should immediately ban union and corporate donations. Quebec, Ottawa, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba have done this, and Ontario is about to. It is the basic first step required for getting money out of politics.

B.C. should also set a low limit on total annual donations from individuals, something well under $1,000, and maybe as low as $100. Because the province's general elections fall on a fixed date every four years, it must restrict party spending year-round. And it has to limit and regulate third-party election spending so that corporate and union donors can't squeeze past the rules.

Voters in B.C. are being denied these basic reforms by Ms. Clark and her Liberal Party. Their democratic right to vote knowing that their ballot holds more influence than a dollar bill does is being subverted by brazen political self-interest. But now Ms. Clark has run out of viable justifications for continuing this travesty, and is operating on greed alone.

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Note to readers: This editorial is part of a series examining the party finance laws in every province and in Ottawa. Next up: Alberta

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