In its brief, desperate legislature session last week, the B.C. Liberal government tried to deliver immediately on one of its many sudden, see-the-light promises after losing its majority in the May election. After refusing years of demands to curb the millions in corporate and union donations funding political parties, particularly their own, they rose from their political deathbed to repent. Justice Minister (and former B.C. Liberal Party president) Andrew Wilkinson presented Election Act changes that would do away with corporate and union donations, at the provincial and local level.
Opposition MLAs from the B.C. NDP and Greens reacted quickly. In a move no one can remember seeing before, they voted against first reading of the legislation. As a result, the exact details officially don’t exist in the legislature record.
The government news release is all that remains, and it shows that while all parties profess to be in favour of restricting political donations to individuals only, the battle over big money isn’t over yet.
In an earlier column I recapped the flood of big donations to the B.C. Liberals after the uncertain result of the election. Green MLA Andrew Weaver, leader of the only party with clean hands on this issue, noted in the legislature last week that they took in $1 million in the first three days.
Wilkinson said the rejected B.C. Liberal amendments would have set a limit of $2,500 a year on personal donations, which is half right. A donor with cash to spare could give $2,500 to his party of choice and another $2,500 to the local candidate, for a total of $5,000.
Compare that to the current federal rules, which allow $1,550 a year in donations to a party and another $1,550 to a candidate, with no corporate or union donations. And to the Alberta NDP government of Rachel Notley, which in its first act a provincial government banned union and corporate gifts and limited individual donations to $4,000 a year, including donations to party leadership campaigns.
A B.C. NDP government led by John Horgan would be expected to follow the Alberta NDP example. One thing to watch is how they handle “in kind” donations, a staple of NDP campaigns where unions lend their staff to the party to help with campaigns.
The B.C. Liberal bill made a point of including “in kind” donations in its new restrictions. It also would have prohibited transfers of money from a federal to a provincial party, a measure that would only affect the NDP. It remains to be seen if Horgan would preserve his party’s advantages, after so many years of watching the B.C. Liberals pile up the corporate cash.
Wilkinson’s bill also would have banned foreign donations, restricting giving to B.C. residents who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Clark and Horgan had a dialogue of the deaf on this issue during the spring election campaign. Horgan demanded the “big money” be taken out, but avoided the issue of “in kind” donations. Clark kept hammering away at her accusation that an NDP government would replace corporate and union cash with a direct subsidy from taxpayers. Jean Chrétien did this at the federal level and this ugly mistake kept the separatist Bloc Quebecois viable for years longer than it deserved.
Horgan has continuously sidestepped the question of public subsidy, raising suspicion that he wants to increase welfare for political parties too.
One thing we can count on in this time of political uncertainty. Parties will serve themselves until forced to do the right thing.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.