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Vancouver Election Spending Out of Control

Prone to fraud, few limits, and a whopping $30 spent per vote. A Tyee special report.

Monte Paulsen 31 Oct

Monte Paulsen is the investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes feedback via e-mail and invites respectful commentary in the online discussion below.

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Mayor Sullivan: Biggest war chest.

Vancouver's 2005 municipal election was the most expensive on record. Three rival political parties reported spending more than $4 million to elect a mayor, city council, and two part-time boards.

That's a minimum of $30 spent per vote cast. That figure is at least six times the amount spent per vote in the 2005 B.C. provincial election. And it's three times the amount per vote spent in the last U.S presidential election, widely criticized as a race skewed by special-interest money.

And that $30 per vote only accounts for the spending we know about. Municipal elections in British Columbia are so poorly regulated that in Vancouver's case, it's likely that as much as a million dollars in campaign donations have never been reported.

No other major city in Canada operates under such a fraud-prone system.

"It is entirely possible for offshore money to buy a municipal election in British Columbia. And it would be easy for the recipient of that money to hide it from public view," said Patrick Smith, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University. "I think that's pretty stunning."

$4 million raised in 2005

Three local political organizations reported raising a combined total of more than $4 million during Vancouver's 2005 municipal election period, according to disclosure statements on file at the city clerk's office.

The right-leaning Non Partisan Association and its 26 candidates reported raising more than $2 million for the November 2005 election. The NPA itself reported only $603,887 in party donations, 81 per cent of which came from corporations.

The balance was raised by the NPA candidates themselves. Mayor Sam Sullivan led the pack, with reported donations of more than $490,000. Like the NPA, Sullivan's money flowed overwhelmingly from corporate donors.

The centre-left Vision Vancouver party reported raising a total of $1.357 million during the 2005 election period. Unlike the NPA, Vision's candidates did not also mount individual fundraising efforts.

Vision reported taking 73 per cent of its money from corporate donors, 15 per cent from individuals, 12 per cent from labour unions and the balance from various non-profit organizations.

The left-leaning Coalition of Progressive Electors reported raising $532,852 during the 2005 election period. COPE took 69 per cent of its 2005 funds from labour unions, and less than 5 per cent from business.

None of the many other parties that participated in Vancouver's 2005 election reported raising a statistically significant amount of money.

$30 per vote

By way of comparison, the $4 million spent in pursuit of 11 council chairs and 16 part-time board seats exceeded the $3,956,687 that province-wide political parties were allowed to spend that same year in pursuit of 79 full-time seats in the Legislative Assembly.

Together, the B.C. Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party of B.C. reported spending $6.6 million on a contest in which 1,774,269 votes were cast. That's about $3.72 per vote. Even after spending by individual candidates, third parties, and out-of-period spending is included, spending during last provincial election likely cost British Columbians less than $5 per ballot.

To draw an even more extreme comparison, U.S. President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger U.S. Senator John Kerry spent a combined total of more than $1.2 billion during America's 2004 presidential election, a contest criticised as the most extravagant campaign in history. But even that race cost a mere $10 per vote.

Vancouver spent $30, based on the 132,072 ballots cast on Nov. 19, 2005.

Up to a million dollars unreported

The rules governing disclosure of campaign finances are so lax that up to a million dollars may already be unaccounted for.

Mayor Sam Sullivan and the NPA have raised at least $500,000 since the 2005 election, according to NPA caucus coordinator George Higgins. Likewise Sullivan has never disclosed the source of funds for his 2004 campaign against a proposed ward system, which observers believe was a six-figure effort.

Vision Vancouver has spent much of the past two years conducting fundraisers to pay off a $200,000 debt left over from the 2005 campaign, and COPE has worked to pay down a similar debt. Neither party has reported the source of funds used to pay down those obligations.

Taken together, these known omissions likely add up to more than a million dollars of political donations that have never been reported -- and likely never will.

These omissions are legal because Vancouver's antiquated campaign disclosure rules only require reporting of donations made during the elections period. The parties do not even agree on what the election period is, with some campaign staffs asserting that it extends six months on either side of election day, while others believe it represents the calendar year in which the election occurs.

"At present, I believe the Vancouver Charter says the only time you have to disclose is during the election period. That starts January 1, 2008," said the NPA's Higgins.

"We are looking into disclosing what we raised in the last year," Higgins said, before adding, "I don't think it's possible to retroactively disclose some things."

Likewise, Vision Vancouver co-chair Mike Magee said his party will disclose all donations in its next regular report. He lamented the lack of regulation.

"There are no rules about how much donors can give, no rules about when it needs to be disclosed, and there's a lack of clarity about what needs to be disclosed," Magee said.

"If somebody showed up and wanted to write a cheque for $3 million, they could do it," he added. "There's no rule against it."

No independent authority

"B.C. has no municipal finance rules other than disclosure, and it's the most peculiar kind of disclosure," agreed SFU's Smith.

Here's how peculiar:

"I've never heard of any review or any investigation or any candidate at all having even a minor kind of review of their finances," said Vision's Magee.

Parties ambivalent about disclosure

"B.C. is the exception," said SFU's Smith. "In most other provinces in Canada, the rules that apply to federal and provincial politics also apply to local politics."

Those rules include donation limits, campaign spending limits, full disclosure, and -- increasingly -- restrictions against contributions from corporations and labour unions.

Toronto and Montreal have each enacted campaign finance reform laws. Calgary has no spending limits, but votes in a ward system where spending tends to be much lower. Smith said that in New Brunswick, the provincial election authority also oversees municipal campaigns.

"Why don't we apply the same rules that we already have provincially? I don't know," Smith said.

"All parties share a certain ambivalence about providing information," he added.

"A democracy without information is not really much of a democracy," Smith said. "This province is playing pretty fast and loose with what are now recognized as international rules of good governance."

Tomorrow: With fundraising already underway, Vancouver's 2008 campaigns are on track to obliterate the records they set in 2005.

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