New legislation invites ‘dark money’ to municipal elections

Though the legislation to ban corporate and union donations for municipal elections was tabled last week, it is just beginning to sink in what a profound effect it could have on our current political system.

On Oct. 30, the day before Halloween, B.C.’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Selina Robinson, unveiled Bill 15 — legislation that also sets caps on individual donations.

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What was particularly spooky for anyone contemplating running for office in the future is that the minister announced the ban would go into effect at midnight the following day.

How many businesses and unions were shaken down for large donations over the following 36 hours will not be known until the candidates and elector organizations who received them fully disclose their funding sources.

One political donor told me that they were made aware of the Oct. 31 deadline weeks earlier, which could be verified when those donations are eventually disclosed.

That the new NDP government would bring in a ban on corporate and union donations is not a surprise. That the limits would be so restrictive on elector organizations’ ability to raise funds makes it highly likely much of the election spending going forward will never be declared at all.

That so-called “dark money” will flow into supporting political candidates in local government seems like a certainty.

The new rules now limit personal donations to individual candidates to $1,200. Elector organizations also face that same $1,200 cap — regardless of how many candidates are on their slate.

Even if someone could afford to give that amount, if you are a candidate for Vision Vancouver, Surrey First or the Burnaby Citizens Coalition, all that one can donate is $1,200 to the whole organization.

Unless they already have plenty of money in the bank — as some most certainly have — many elector organizations will simply not have enough funds to run their campaigns.

And unlike with federal and provincial campaigns, there are no tax receipts that come with municipal donations.

With a population of more than 600,000, to run a civic election campaign in Vancouver you need to somehow communicate to several hundred thousand potential voters — and that takes money. Organizations such as IntegrityBC are dismissive of the high costs associated with election campaigns, but unless we want to continue to re-elect incumbent candidates, you need to be able to communicate with voters.

For example, if you were to use ad mail, you need to deliver to approximately 250,000 households in Vancouver. Your costs for design, printing and postage alone would probably run you at about $1.50 per piece of mail for a total cost of $375,000.

Voter identification through phone banks is another extremely costly exercise. The more sophisticated elector organizations would be constantly polling to know what issues and candidates will resonate with voters.

That Mayor Gregor Robertson apologized to voters for not listening to citizens two days before the 2014 election was not by chance. Vision Vancouver’s internal polling would have shown the party was about to lose control of city council — hence the mea culpa.

The cost for the polling and phone banks that big campaigns rely upon will run into the six figures. To raise $1 million or more to conduct an effective municipal campaign you would need thousands of individual donors giving hundreds of dollars each.

No elector organization or individual candidate has the capacity to raise those amounts from so many individual donors.

What will likely happen is campaign operations will be outsourced to third parties who are not restricted by the legislation. There are companies that would do push polling to manipulate voters, and identify their political leanings in order to send them election day reminders.

Bill 15 makes no provision either for third parties, such as U.S.-funded activist groups that continue to try to influence the outcomes of our elections.

If there is a silver lining in the legislation, it is that donors behind really large contributions will no longer hold sway over organizations.

There is still time, however, for the government to make amendments to Bill 15 — such as making donations tax deductible — that will go some way to improving and not hampering our election process.


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