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Public Accounts Notebook: Donations, Real Estate, Clark’s Flights and More

Or, waiting by the phone for a finance minister’s call that never comes.

By Bob Mackin 22 Jul 2016 |

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media out-lets since 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

The legislature is scheduled to sit next week for only four days, with just two objectives -- amending the Vancouver Charter to allow a municipal tax on vacant houses and apartments and amending the Real Estate Services Act to reverse 2005 BC Liberal “red-tape” cutting that allowed the industry to self-regulate.

Why not a third item, Finance Minister Mike de Jong was asked Thursday as he released the public accounts? Would the BC Liberals respond to the public outcry over out-of-control political fundraising and mandate public disclosure of donations on a quarterly or monthly basis?

“Not legislatively,” de Jong said. “The work has been undertaken, the drafting is not complete.”

Instead, he said, the BC Liberals will begin voluntarily releasing donation lists every two weeks in January.

“In the case of the BC Liberal Party, the premier, the leader of the party, has directed the party to ensure a system is in place whereby the beginning of January disclosure is taking place on a real time basis,” de Jong revealed.

Not good enough, says Integrity B.C.’s Dermod Travis.

“Seriously, when she first came out with this brilliant idea, I put out a post that said, just do it! There’s nothing stopping the BC Liberal Party from doing it today if they wanted to,” Travis said.

“The fact they want to put it off suggests either they want to keep putting it off and it may never happen or if there’s something between now and January that they don’t want people to see.”

Last spring, Premier Christy Clark directed Attorney General Suzanne Anton to ask Elections BC to consider the costs and benefits of a “real time” reporting system. Elections BC reported it could easily and quickly implement such a system.

The party has declined media requests to release the names of donors at fundraising events like the Vancouver Leader’s Dinner on June 6, the Leader’s Invitational Golf Tournament at an Aquilini family-owned golf course in Pitt Meadows June 20 and even the May 25 “Dinner at Home with Minister Amrik Virk” and four other cabinet ministers.

Travis said the lack of mandatory ongoing reporting means next April’s annual Elections BC report of party donations could be drowned out by rhetoric as the election campaign nears the May 9 voting date.

No more details on ‘Air Christy’

The public accounts released Thursday -- the annual report on government finances for the previous fiscal year -- include a detailed list of individuals and companies paid $25,000 or more for providing goods and services to government.

It does not include a line item for Clark’s charter jet voyages.

Since becoming premier in 2011, Christy Clark and her entourage have flown on charter jet trips that have cost taxpayers more than $560,000.

Earlier in her premiership, she preferred to travel on Blackcomb Aviation LP. The company, owned by the Liberal-allied McLean family, billed taxpayers for a variety of air services totalling $2.55 million last year. Its affiliate, Blackcomb Helicopters LP billed $1.41 million.

Recently, Clark has preferred to travel on Orca Airways Ltd., particularly for day trips to her riding in Kelowna and one-way trips from Victoria to her home in Vancouver. Orca was paid $288,713 last year. Pacific Coastal Airways Ltd., on which Clark and her campaign team travelled during the 2013 campaign, was paid $177,753.

Mixed metaphors on housing and property transfer tax

The public accounts reported a $730-million surplus for the year ended March 31, thanks in large part to $605 million more than budgeted from the property transfer tax.

The revenue was up 44 per cent from the previous year to $1.53 billion.

De Jong tried to downplay the significance of the tax in achieving a balanced budget and the government’s reliance on the hot Metro Vancouver real estate market using metaphors related to two of his favourite topics: hockey and cars.

“I know there is a tendency to pick one part of the budget and say this is what accounts for the end result. It’s a little bit like saying well, Sidney Crosby scored three goals and without Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh doesn’t win the Stanley Cup,” de Jong said. “We don’t know that. They won the Stanley Cup. This is clearly a significant part of the budget and has generated significant revenues, but the economy is performing well almost across the board, not entirely, there are areas of challenge as well.”

While the NDP has urged scrutiny of foreign real estate transactions, including attempts to launder money, de Jong repeated the BC Liberals’ supply solution, with a twist.

“They want to buy our cars and if all of the talk is simply about how to chase people away from the car lot, what we should be doing is getting more cars on the lot,” he said. “So I think as important and relevant as is it is to look at adjusting our structure of taxation to take into account the unique circumstances that have developed… Build more product, build more houses, Canadians want to buy them, British columbians want to by them, so let’s give them something to buy.”

BC Liberals keeping hotel secrets

Three years ago, on July 25, 2013, Elizabeth Denham, then the commissioner responsible for freedom of information, recommended the BC Liberals adopt proactive disclosure of certain public records, including detailed expense reports and receipts for cabinet members and senior bureaucrats. They’re finally on their way, but don’t expect full disclosure.

“That’s going to be posted by the end of the month,” de Jong said.

Since 2011, only monthly spending summaries have been published, without details about what goods and services were bought, where and when.

There will be still be a key omission when the reports and receipts are disclosed. Hotel names will be withheld.

De Jong said he reviewed the new summaries and understands the “security issue” around not naming hotels.

“We should probably name the city, but it’s hard to see from the package what city that particular receipt relates to.”

The Government of Canada, Province of Alberta and City of Vancouver do not censor hotel names.

Meanwhile, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association urged action on B.C. FOI reforms Thursday.

The association wants the government to act on the recommendations from a special committee on information and privacy, which tabled its report in May.

“If the government doesn’t manage to get to deal with these vital issues during the July sitting, they should have a fall sitting to do it,” said an association news release. “There is no excuse for delaying action to restore public confidence in access to information.”

De Jong shuts out Vancouver reporters

Only two reporters attended the Vancouver remote site for the public accounts release.

While de Jong addressed members of the legislative press gallery in the Press Theatre, reporters in Metro Vancouver were welcomed to the cabinet offices at Canada Place.

The pre-event advisory said the speaker phone would be set to listen-only. Staff, however, said that de Jong would call-in to the Vancouver office after the event and take questions.

But after de Jong finished answering questions in Victoria there was a long wait before the reporters were advised that he had gone to a meeting.

Interview requests were to be directed to finance ministry communications director Jamie Edwardson.

“Will see what we can do based on his availability this afternoon,” Edwardson responded when I called.

De Jong did not call.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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