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Why This Election Should Be About Corruption

When 76 per cent of citizens believe government is bought and paid for, it’s time for change.

By Paul Willcocks 13 Apr 2017 |

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee. This report is part of The Tyee’s reader-funded B.C. 2017 election coverage. To learn more about becoming a Tyee Builder, go here.

Voters will likely have their own ideas on key election issues. But corruption, and what the parties would do about it, should be near the top of the list.

I spent much of the last five years in Honduras, where corruption is part of life. Co-workers and acquaintances sometimes asked if corruption was a problem in Canada.

Not like here, I’d say. More subtle. But still damaging.

Start with political fundraising. British Columbia has, effectively, no limits on who can contribute, or how much.

Corporations, unions, wealthy individuals, lobby groups and even foreign governments can make — or withhold — unlimited donations to candidates and parties. Big donors can play a large role in deciding the outcome of elections. The evidence is that they expect their support to buy influence. The public thinks that’s what is happening.

Premier Christy Clark argues unlimited donations are fine as long as they’re disclosed, so citizens can make sure big contributors aren’t getting special treatment.

But citizens can’t spend weeks scrutinizing the 23,000 donations the BC Liberals received last year — 1,872 from businesses. They can’t track government decisions, often made behind closed doors, to see how donors are rewarded.

Other BC Liberal defenders of unlimited donations rely on the “trust me” defence. “We can’t be bought, OK?” said Energy Minister Bill Bennett, as if that settled the issue.

But Bennett was lobbied 437 times by 10 major energy companies between 2010 and 2016 — about once a week. The same industry donors contributed about $3.8 million to the BC Liberals.

Bennett doesn’t know whether political staffers — whose futures depend on the Liberals’ re-election — are quicker to arrange meetings for big donors. Or whether people who pay $10,000 for an audience with Clark expect more than a glass of wine and small talk. Or if mining giant Teck Resources and its lobbyists benefit from more than $1.5 million in donations to the BC Liberals since 2008. Or if donations from real estate development and construction companies — eight of the 10 biggest Liberal donors last year — were a factor in the government’s inaction as house prices and rents soared.

The “trust me” defence is fatally flawed. While politicians claim donations aren’t important, their parties spend vast amounts of time and money fundraising because they know it’s essential to win elections.

And citizens don’t buy it. An Angus Reid poll last month found 76 per cent of British Columbians agree the Liberal government is “only interested in helping its political donors and big business.” More than 70 per cent said corporate and union donations should be banned.

Donors see the cash as an investment in future favourable treatment.

Consider the numbers. The BC Liberals raised $13 million last year, more than any other provincial party. In Ontario, with a population three times larger, the Liberal party raised $9.7 million. More than half of the BC Liberals’ take, $6.9 million, came from events where donors paid to meet the premier, cabinet ministers and MLAs, The Globe and Mail reported. Those people could have mailed a cheque, but they chose to be sure their support was noticed.

Or look at the rush of corporate cash to the NDP in 2013, when it looked like the party would win. In 2009, corporate donors gave the New Democrats $211,000. In 2013, they contributed $2.1 million, a tenfold increase. CEOs didn’t suddenly decide they liked NDP polices. They were buying future influence.

Or perhaps they feared what would happen if they didn’t pay up. Extortion is part of life in Honduras's two big cities. Stores, taxi drivers and sometimes homeowners pay a weekly tax to gangs.

Some reluctant donors, the Globe and Mail’s Kathy Tomlinson reported, saw the BC Liberals’ fundraising tactics in a similar way. A lobbyist said there is “no limit” to fundraising calls and emails from parties and it feels “extortionist.” A consultant said it seemed “like a shakedown.”

Clark also claims that without unlimited donations, the public would have to fund political parties.

But that’s not true. The federal government strictly limited donations and eliminated subsidies in 2015, with no ill effects.

Donations aren’t the only issue that should make this an election about corruption.

In Honduras, insiders stole more than $300 million from the health and social security agency, with millions going to the election campaign of the governing party. In Nicaragua, posters and billboards with giant photos of President Daniel Ortega and first lady Rosario Murillo were paid for by the government, not the FSLN party.

In British Columbia, the government almost doubled its ad budget in the run up to this election, from $8.5 million to $15 million. (Based on past practice, it will overspend.)

The taxpayer-funded ads were so obviously partisan they drew a rebuke from the province’s Auditor General.

It’s hard to see a material difference between a Honduran party taking money illegally from the health service to fund its campaign and a B.C. party misappropriating taxpayers’ money to pay for partisan ads.

And then there is the troubling list of scandals. From Quick Wins, and the use of government staff to advance the BC Liberal Party’s interests, to Triple Delete, which revealed a pattern of secrecy and actions aimed at evading freedom of information laws, the Liberals have placed the party’s interests above the law.

There is nothing more corrosive to a functioning society than corruption. And British Columbians, weighing the evidence, have judged our system to be corrupt.

Electing a party that will end that corruption should be a priority for every voter.

Where the parties stand

The BC Liberals have supported the current unlimited donations. They also reject any regulations to limit partisan taxpayer-funded advertising, particularly in the election period. Last month, as a scandal involving possible illegal donations to the BC Liberals from lobbyists sparked an RCMP investigation, Clark announced an independent panel would review contribution rules and make non-binding recommendations.

The NDP has promised to eliminate union and corporate donations and put a cap on individual donations. It has also introduced a bill that would require the Auditor General to review all government advertising to ensure it’s needed and not partisan. Only essential advertising would be allowed in the four months before an election. The NDP also introduced a bill that would restore limits on parties’ spending in the 60 days before an election campaign starts. Currently, only spending during the official 28-day campaign is limited — to about $77,000 per candidate and $4.9 million per party.

The Green Party also pledges to ban corporate and union donations and limit individual donations to something in line with federal caps — $1,550 to a party and the same amount to one riding association. The Greens also propose to ban pay-for-access fundraisers and reforms to lobbying regulations to provide a cooling-off period before politicians and senior managers can lobby their former colleagues.  [Tyee]

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