To Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe, the decision by unionized city employees to donate money to Vision Vancouver was "corruption" and an "extraordinary event." To University of B.C. law professor Joel Bakan, it's a "non-issue" and "business as usual" in the absence of action by the province to restrict big-money donations in municipal election campaigns.
CUPE 1004, which represents the city's outside workers, voted last month to give Vision $34,000 for the upcoming election. Matching by CUPE national and regional offices brought the total to $102,000.
"Corruption is not a regular practice in politics," LaPointe told reporters Tuesday, about the donation. "That was an extraordinary event and I hope that everybody understands that, that when you actually go to a union and basically say, 'We're going to commit never to outsource any more services and now we are going to get your support for that…
"I think it was a horrible act and I believe that our community understands that it was buying votes."
Normally, such donations are not widely reported -- it's assumed that unions and some business groups give money to Vision while the NPA relies largely on corporations.
That's pretty much how UBC law professor Bakan regards the dust-up. "I don't see any evidence that takes this beyond the usual – which is that unions and business donate to political parties that reflect their priorities."
Bakan said that LaPointe's accusation of corruption is "over-heated," adding that "I think there is a good policy basis for a left-leaning government to have a position on contracting-out in the same way you would expect a right-leaning government to share its concern about over-regulation with a business group."
It's hard to imagine that similar appeals haven't been made to CUPE 1004 by Vision officials in previous elections. In 2011, the local donated $42,000 to Vision. In 2008, the local gave $95,000 to the Coalition of Progressive Electors and $55,000 to Vision. There was no coverage of those donations other than in the regular post-election reporting of campaign donations.
But this CUPE donation caught the eye of some in the media -- and the NPA -- because it was made following an in-person request by Vision councillor Geoff Meggs who reminded the union's political committee of his party's long-standing limits on contracting-out.
Issue re-emerged at debate
The incident was captured in an audio clip leaked to freelance reporter Bob Mackin, who filed a piece about it to the Vancouver Courier. (Mackin also regularly contributes to The Tyee.)
The NPA fired off a press statement on the incident but it failed to generate much buzz. Mackin's colleague at the Courier, columnist Allan Garr, dismissed the controversy, writing that it's not "news" that CUPE would give money to Vision or that Vision would stick to its previous policy of restricting contracting-out.
The story became submerged in the blather of daily campaign talking points but re-emerged on the weekend when Mayor Gregor Robertson was confronted by LaPointe about the deal. The mayor failed to address the matter head-on. Instead of arguing that, yes, Vision had a long-standing position on contracting-out, he became defensive and made references to a lack of details in the NPA's platform. Robertson's verbal misstep, similarly to one by LaPointe days earlier, became a YouTube video tweeted far and wide by NPA supporters.
Bakan, who has read media reports but has not heard the tape, remains unimpressed by the ruckus. "I think most left-wing parties will have a position on core labour issues like contracting out for both moral and policy reasons."
Another UBC academic, Max Cameron, was less sanguine about the incident. "I think there was a violation of basic principles of ethical conduct. But why I wouldn't call it corruption is that we are living in the Wild West in terms of municipal election financing in B.C."
Cameron, a political scientist who heard the tape, said that the B.C. government has been "extraordinarily remiss" in bringing in a ban on corporate and union donations, or limits on donations. Cameron said that it is to be expected that Vision would want to restrict contracting out and that CUPE would want this policy. "What's troubling about the audio is that it sounds like a promise of a benefit is being made in return for getting money to get elected."
While his UBC colleague, Bakan, didn't see anything "exceptional or problematic" about the donation, he agrees with Cameron that the province has to reduce the role of money in Vancouver where the two main parties believe they need to raise over $2 million to compete.
Province slow to reform municipal donations
"I think it would be a good thing for democratic politics to take money out of politics, to have public financing of elections and curb the degree to which unions and businesses can provide funding to political parties," said Bakan.
Vision, the NPA and COPE have urged Victoria to put curbs on big spending in civic campaigns. But Coralee Oakes, the minister in charge of the municipal government portfolio, has said that reforms won't be in place until the 2018 election. The Vision council has called for a ban on corporate and union donations.
Asked why Vision didn't voluntarily reject big contributions, Vision councillor Raymond Louie said his party was not going to be put itself in a financial straightjacket while the NPA filled its coffers.
"We are working within the framework currently allowed. We can't be disadvantaged and operate on one set of rules with the NPA working under another. We would be hand-cuffing ourselves."
Developer Rob Macdonald, who gave the NPA $960,000 in donations in the 2011 campaign, also believes the province should impose some restraint. He does not favour a total ban on union and corporate donations but said that maximum donations from individuals or groups should be limited to $2,500.