Corporate cash clash: When big money is not really banned from civic politics

Vision Vancouver and Non-Partisan Association scrap over new campaign finance rules

12th and Cambie

You’ve probably heard that Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association are scrapping again.

When aren’t they?

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This time it’s about money.

First, some background: As regular readers will know, the provincial government created legislation last fall that bans union and corporate donations to municipal parties and candidates. That means it’s up to individuals like you to finance your favourite party or candidate.

Maximum donation: $1,200 to a party or candidate.

For years, city councillors from all political stripes at city hall supported recommendation after recommendation to have the provincial government change the laws to put a halt to the multi-million dollar campaigns.

So when the NDP-led provincial government brought in the new legislation, councillors past and present rejoiced. Big money would now be out of civic politics. This October’s municipal election would be fought without the influence of corporations and unions. Goodbye Concord Pacific, goodbye CUPE.

Not exactly.

Fast forward to this month and we now learn the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act allows parties to collect money from unions and corporations—and collect as much as they want—to fund “the day-to-day administration of an elector organization that operates on a continuing basis outside of campaign and election periods.”

That quote is courtesy of Andrew Watson, the manager of communications for Elections BC, who said such operational expenses include rent of an office, staff wages and supplies. Watson answered that question in relation to news that surfaced suggesting the NPA, which operates a year-round office on Pender Street, was raking in the corporate cash to pay for its expenses.

Except, as I was told by NPA president Gregory Baker, it’s not true. In fact, Baker said the NPA hasn’t taken a cent from corporations since the legislation was enacted last fall. But, he added, that doesn’t mean the party won’t seek corporate donations for future operational expenses, as allowed by Elections BC.

That admission triggered Vision to request the provincial government close the so-called loophole in the legislation. That request was followed by Vision Coun. Andrea Reimer promising to introduce a motion at the May 1 council meeting to ask the same thing of government—with support from the NPA’s four councillors.

This is all very interesting since Reimer led the charge to get big money out of civic politics. Now that rules are in place, apparently they’re not entirely good enough. Reimer, who accused the NPA of exploiting the intent of the legislation, called the “loophole” an honest mistake by government.

“The honest response to that would be to point that out to the minister, not to quietly truck along taking money from sources that you said you don’t want included [in civic politics],” she said.

But if that was a mistake, asked NPA Coun. George Affleck, then is it also a mistake to allow a person to donate $1,200 to as many independent candidates as one wishes?

His point is that say you wanted to donate $1,200 to his colleague Melissa De Genova’s campaign, then you could not donate any more cash to another NPA candidate or the party.

Affleck pointed out that independent mayoral candidate Shauna Sylvester has strong ties to Vision Vancouver. So does former Vision park board commissioner Sarah Blyth, who announced this week she is running as an independent candidate for council.

So, in effect, a person could donate more money to a slate of like-minded independent candidates than they could to a political party. Interesting. But could that seriously amount to enough cash to have independents topple candidates from parties such as the NPA and Vision?

Affleck thinks so, Reimer is not so sure.

“When is the last time a loose coalition of independent anything got elected in the city of Vancouver?” she said, noting the majority of voters have historically favoured parties over independents. “They would have to have a colossal amount of money to be able to overcome the bias that voters have [about supporting civic parties].”

You don’t think that will change with these new campaign finance rules?

“The experience in jurisdictions around the world that have campaign finance rules is still that there is a big advantage to running with a party,” she said. “The disadvantage to independents has nothing to do with corporate money or parties, or any of that. It’s that they present as someone who doesn’t have the skill set that they’re actually running for, which is to work with other people effectively to bring legislation in.”

For now, Affleck and Baker say the NPA continues to abide by current legislation and will abide by any changes to the legislation. They’re both clear that any criticism of the legislation and what it allows should be directed at the provincial government and Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson, not at the party.

Robinson appears to be on the case.

Or, as she put it to me in an emailed statement this week: "We have staff looking into what changes may be needed to ensure that we are able to give British Columbians the fair elections they want, free of the influence of donors with deep pockets."

In the meantime, the scrap continues.

The election is Oct. 20.


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