Opinion
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BC Politics

In ‘Wild West’ of Political Cash, Wilkinson Was a Shameless Cowboy

New BC Liberal leader staunchly defended rules illegal in most of Canada.

By David Beers 6 Feb 2018 | TheTyee.ca

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

When the New York Times named British Columbia the “wild west of Canadian political cash,” the BC Liberals showed not an ounce of shame, choosing to defend their voracious cash-for-access practices as the best of all worlds. Prominent among their apologists? The man the party has just elected to be its new leader, Andrew Wilkinson.

For years other media, including The Tyee, had blasted the fact that B.C. lacked limits on political donations and allowed private schmooze-fests with governing politicians for the right price. But when Times correspondent Dan Levin published his attention-grabbing piece a year ago, members of the BC Liberal government were thrown back on their heels. They turned to MLA Wilkinson, former president of their party and close adviser to previous premier Gordon Campbell, to calm the masses.

“No one gets special treatment by being a campaign donor,” Wilkinson assured CKNW listeners six days after the Times story broke.

Does anyone believe that? One person who doesn’t is another former top adviser to Campbell, Martyn Brown, who admitted: “For the Liberals, the housing industry, construction industry, real estate, the liquor industry, energy industry, certainly the mining industry, big forest industry — all gave exceptional amounts of money, and they got exceptional attention… It makes the government stand up and listen when they lobby and anybody who pretends otherwise is not telling the truth.”

Nevertheless, with the provincial election in full swing and his party under mounting attack for clinging to fundraising rules illegal in most of Canada, Wilkinson remained unblushing. Our province has been doing it this way for 40 years, he told the CBC, stoking fears while defending his own $225-a-plate yearly fundraisers:

“It’s a way for parties to raise money and I think the key point to get across here is if the parties aren’t raising the money and are accountable to the ballot box, these funds go elsewhere. If the parties aren’t running the fundraising, it’s going to go through third-party channels and it’s going to get very, very nasty.”

Wilkinson’s $100,000 night

Wilkinson had been quietly oiling the BC Liberal machine for a decade and a half when he decided he’d like to run for office in 2013, winning the riding of Vancouver-Quilchena and joining former premier Christy Clark’s cabinet.

Given his considerable influence within the BC Liberals, he might have saved them humiliation had he opposed the party carving $50,000 from its donations and giving it to Clark on top of the $195,000 the public already paid her. The Times found this practice so stunning it made it the lead of its “wild west” story, wondering aloud if Clark’s $50,000 amounted to “personal enrichment from the handouts of wealthy donors, some of whom have paid tens of thousands of dollars to meet with her at private party fund-raisers?” 

There is no sign, however, that Wilkinson counselled his party leaders anything other than business as usual.

In fact, Clark’s ability to hoover up money from the rich and powerfully interested extended from Calgary’s oil patch to Wilkinson’s own riding. There, on one bling-spangled night, Clark’s presence may have netted Wilkinson’s campaign as much as $100,000.

That soiree came just after the summer of 2014, when British Columbians were wracked with anxiety wondering whether their government and teachers could end a strike in time for children to start school on time. Despite the crisis, Christy Clark and her team scheduled more than 20 fundraising events from June through September, according to The Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod. Wilkinson’s place at the trough was slated for Sept. 30. Clark was booked to attend a $1,000-a-plate dinner at a private home in the Southlands area of Vancouver, MacLeod reported, “a fundraiser for the Vancouver-Quilchena riding association, hosted by the local MLA Andrew Wilkinson.”

“No one gets special treatment by being a campaign donor,” Wilkinson would say on the radio three years later, but his party’s website told a different story as it enticed guests for his 2014 extravaganza: “This event offers you a unique opportunity to meet the Premier and many of her cabinet colleagues. Dress is ‘business casual’ and the dinner will be limited to 100 guests.” 

Wilkinson remained unrepentant throughout the BC Liberals’ doomed last election, no matter how much pressure grew to outlaw corporate and union donations along with cash-for-access fundraisers.

“We don’t have limits in British Columbia and that’s how it has been working now for decades,” Wilkinson, with the straightest of faces, told voters. “It’s a system that works.”

It certainly has worked for him.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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