For many of us in Canada, as we watch with morbid fascination the gong show grotesqueries of the current U.S. presidential election complete with its anonymous billionaire donors funding vicious attack ads, it’s tempting to feel a delicious sense of superiority and self-righteousness.
We like to think Canadian democracy, for all its faults, has been spared the worst of the excesses unleashed by the notorious Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court’s right-wing jurists, a decision that pushes the always dubious category error that a corporation is a person to its final reductio ad absurdum and freshly justifies the cynical old slogan “One dollar, one vote.”
But, as is so often the case when we are tempted by self-congratulatory and invidious comparisons between our dominion and the Excited States, the reality isn’t so simple. In fact, in Vancouver we live with a system of campaign finance that is almost as corrosive to real democracy as the worst of the Tea Party brew now being swilled by our American cousins.
With no real regulatory limits in place, the 2011 civic election saw campaign expenditures expand like a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet, with Vision spending $2.2 million, the oddly named Non-Partisan Association splashing out $2.5 million and even the severely outspent COPE spending $361,000.
In 2008, Vancouver civic parties spent $12.29 per potential backer, well over twice the comparable expenditure in Toronto. It’s hard to imagine a way in which all of this expenditure is good for city democracy, and all too easy to conceive of scenarios in which all the over-spending could lead to real or perceived conflicts of interest.
Perhaps the most striking fact from the last city election is that one developer, Rob Macdonald, contributed nearly $1 million to help fund the NPA’s campaign. (Yes, you read that right. One business donor provided more than a third of the money the NPA spent on its entire campaign.)
It is, of course, possible that the donation was entirely motivated by Mr. Macdonald’s love for city democracy and good government, but in the wake of that revelation, cynical voices have been heard to mutter about how profoundly decisions at city hall can impact the bottom line of anyone involved in property development. At the very least, an unregulated system that allows one donor, whether individual or corporate, to underwrite so much of a city party’s campaign can lead to perceptions of conflict, if not actual improper influence. (And, to be fair, given the dismal electoral returns Mr. Macdonald and his NPA racked up in the last election, he could not be accused of successfully buying much influence, at least not this time out.)
So, will Vancouver ever see its Wild West system of campaign funding reformed? Or are we going to see yet another obscene level of campaign spending again in the 2014 election? The answer to this compelling question is not yet entirely clear.
In January of this year, Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer proposed a resolution, passed unanimously, that read in part:
“THAT City Council write to the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development and reiterate the request to have the ability under the Vancouver Charter for Council to make campaign finance rules and consider alternate voting systems.” (Because of Vancouver’s status under the Charter, provincial permission would be required for such reforms.)
Reimer recently told the Courier that an attempt this May to get a regional body of the Union of B.C. Municipalities to endorse Vancouver’s ideas for campaign finance reform—as demanded by then Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Ida Chong—failed to win a majority. (Chong told Courier reporter Mike Howell last March that spending limits for city campaigns would be in place by 2014, but there would be no limits on union or corporate donations.)
Nevertheless, Reimer remains hopeful, despite this setback, that Vancouver will be allowed to implement campaign reforms before the next election.
“We have a compelling case for change,” Reimer insists. “My personal view is that we need a ban on both union and corporate donations, plus caps on donations and spending. But before anything was put in place, we would want to have wide ranging community discussions.”
So, no certainty, but some hope for reforms in time for the 2014 election. If these hopes materialize, we might be able to better support our fond illusions of being better than the crazed Americans.
(Allen Garr is on vacation.)