John Horgan blew it on political finance reform. But it’s not too late to fix the mistake.
Yes, the new government deserves full credit for legislation banning union and corporate donations and limiting individual donations to $1,200.
And yes, the BC Liberals can’t possibly be taken seriously on the issue after growing fat on corporate donations as the smell of corruption grew stronger.
But the NDP platform was clear. The new government’s priority would be “taking big money out of politics.”
And Horgan didn’t deliver. The public subsidies he proposes for parties — about $11 million over the next four years for the Liberals and New Democrats — ensure politics is still a big money game.
There are two problems with the legislation the government introduced this month.
First, it’s a betrayal.
Three months before the election, then-premier Christy Clark said an NDP government would make taxpayers fund political parties.
Not true, Horgan said. “It’s always alternate facts with the premier. In one of her distortions last week she said my preference was for taxpayers to pay for political parties. That is just not the case.”
And the New Democrats introduced a bill in February that called for a ban on corporate and union donations and an independent review of political financing. It didn’t mention public funding for parties.
Yet once in power, Horgan decided political parties needed money from taxpayers. He didn’t stick with the campaign promise or the commitment in the Green-NDP agreement to “conduct a review of campaign finance and the Elections Act.”
Instead, behind closed doors a deal was cut to provide taxpayers’ money for parties. No independent review. No consultations or studies. (The subsidies are supposed to be phased out over five years.)
That’s a huge problem for Horgan’s credibility. Not as great as Gordon Campbell’s betrayal in rejecting the HST during the 2009 campaign, then introducing the tax after the election. But identical in principle. Saying one thing in an election campaign, and doing another is destructive, not just for the party, but for democracy.
Second, the NDP’s plan doesn’t take big money out of politics.
The Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod dug into the numbers, looking at how the parties would be affected by the new donation limits. He took the parties’ 2016 donations and eliminated the contributions that would be outlawed by the legislation — union, corporate and amounts that exceeded the $1,200 individual donation limit.
Without any public subsidy, the Liberals could count on $3 million, the NDP $3.7 million and the Greens about $800,000.
And that’s one of the big unanswered questions about Horgan’s law. Why isn’t more than $3 million a year enough to run a political party?
Even without the public subsidy, the NDP would receive donations equal to about $1.16 per eligible voter under the new rules. The BC Liberals would have about 94 cents per voter to spend on the party’s operations. (With the subsidy, the NDP is estimated to have $1.80 per voter to spend; the Liberals $1.50.)
Next door in Alberta, the NDP raised about 77 cents per voter last year, and seems to be functioning perfectly well. The Ontario Liberal Party raised 65 cents per voter last year, and managed on that level of funding.
So without the subsidy, BC New Democrats would take in 51 per cent more per eligible voter than the Alberta NDP. And the BC Liberals would take in 44 per cent more than their Ontario counterparts. Why isn’t that enough money?
The promise to take big money out of politics wasn’t just about the influence of large donors.
More money for parties means more paid staff and consultants, more polling, more attack ads and more perpetual campaigning. It supports a system in which politics become a career, and practitioners move fluidly between party operations and political staff jobs and lobbying and elected office.
And it creates the risk that party members are increasingly irrelevant, except as a source of funds or volunteers to be sent door-knocking to repeat messages developed by the paid staff. Even candidates are routinely told not to do interviews and refer all questions to the central office staff.
Consider the BC Liberals’ post-election throne speech abandoning its own policies and setting out an agenda ripped from the Green and NDP platforms. That desperate and unsuccessful attempt to cling to power showed how irrelevant the party members were, as a handful of people decided to set the Liberals on an entirely new course.
Sure, parties need money to operate. But too much money is just as destructive as too little.
The NDP-Green political finance changes fail in part because there has been no independent effort to decide how much parties actually need to fill their role in our democratic system.
Instead, people in the system who depend on the cash have decided that they need a lot of public money.
A chance for meaningful reform is lost. And Horgan and the NDP start their term with a broken promise and give the Liberals a stick to beat them with for the next four years.
It’s an easy mistake to fix. The New Democrats can amend their bill. The limits can be left in place, while the issue of public subsidies is sent for independent review — by the chief electoral officer, or a citizens’ panel. The review can look at party spending across Canada, consider the level of funding that best serves the democratic process and citizens’ interests and decide if public subsidies to parties are needed.
If really necessary, the government could even provide modest public funding until the review is complete.
It’s tough for politicians to admit mistakes. Horgan should acknowledge this one, and fix it this week as the legislature returns.
Read more: BC Politics