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How to Fix Campaign Finance

Banning corporate and union participation is not the answer. Here are five ways to improve B.C.'s municipal elections.

By Denisa Gavan-Koop 21 Nov 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Denisa Gavan-Koop is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University and a board member of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

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Municipal politics: In whose pocket?

Vancouver City Councillors Heather Deal and George Chow recently proposed changes to Vancouver's archaic campaign finance system. Their proposal includes banning corporate and union donations, and requiring all donations be made public every year.

Though the Vision Vancouver councillors must be credited with resuscitating debate about municipal campaign finance -- Vancouver City Council is now scheduled to hear the Vision motion on November 29 -- their proposed remedies may not be the best cure for what ails local elections in B.C.

Below are five suggestions that many poilitical scientists agree would lead to more fair and equitable funding of local campaigns. But first, a look at how other places address campaign finance.

No limits in B.C. or Alberta

There simply are no limits for candidates, donors and third-party campaigners in B.C. and Alberta. The campaign finance systems in the two provinces are the least rigorous in Canada.

Corporations, unions and individuals can donate as much as they choose, and candidates can spend as much as they like. Donors don't even have to live in Canada; there is nothing to prevent multinational corporations -- or even a foreign nation -- from buying influence within B.C. city halls.

Vancouver's 2005 municipal election was the most expensive on record. Three rival political parties reported spending more than $4 million to elect a mayor, city council, and two part-time boards.That's six times the amount spent per vote in the 2005 provincial election.

Calgary also provides interesting examples of money flowing out of -- and back into -- candidates' pockets. Mayoral candidate Alnoor Kassam put nearly a million dollars of his own money toward his unsucessful campaign. While in 2004, former Calgary alderman John Schmal was allowed to do as he pleased with the $48,000 surplus in his campaign war chest.

Rules abound elsewhere

There is much to be learned from other provinces and nations.

In Ontario, contributions to candidates from corporations, unions and individuals are limited to $750. Each candidate for local councillor may not exceed $5,000, plus 75 cents per eligible elector; mayoral candidates are allowed $7,500 plus 70 cents per elector.

In Quebec, donatations can only be made by Quebec electors. Corporate and unions are prohibited. The total amount of contributions that an individul elector can make during a 12-month period must not exceed $1,000.

In the United States, there is a "pre-reporting period" whereby all committees acting on behalf or against a candidate must report to the government which candidate they are supporting and how much money they will be spending on the candidate's behalf 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary election.

All advertisements in New Zealand, including third party advertisements, supporting a candidate must have the candidate's written authorization. Such advertisements count towards the candidates' contributions.

Five ideas to improve B.C.'s local elections

Banning corporate and union donations will not likely make B.C.'s system more virtuous. Instead, banning these donations might simply hide donations through activities such as in-kind contributions or individual employee donations. Preventing such orcharested efforts by corporations and unions is difficult, even with strict provisions in place. Prohibiting such donations will make it even more difficult to trace where the money is coming from.

But reform remains a worthwhile objective. Here are some suggestions for a more fair and equitable system:

  1. Only registered voters within the province of B.C. should be allowed to donate to local elections. All such contributions should be limited -- whether given in money, goods or services from any individual, corporation or union.
  2. Candidates' spending should be limited for each local election. Limits should be based on the number of elegible voters within an electoral jurisdiction. For example, the spending limit for councillor candidates might be $5,000 plus 75 cents per eligible voter; mayoral candidates might be allowed a limit of $10,000 plus 75 cents per voter. (Spending and donation limits would be gradually adjusted for inflation and population change.)
  3. Campaign financial statements should be more accessible to the public. All campaign finance disclosure forms should be collected, scanned and uploaded to the Elections BC website after each municipal election. Elections BC should be funded to create and maintain a permanent, fully searchable, and multi-jurisdictional database, through which any user could search for any donor or any candidate -- local, provincial or federal -- at any time.
  4. All money that is spent by third-party campaigners should be limited and disclosed to the public on the Elections BC website as part of its fully searchable database. Such support would count towards the candidates total contributions and spending.
  5. The roles and mandates of both the B.C. chief electoral officer and the local city clerk should change. The chief electoral officer must be responsible for the impartial administration of, and full disclosure of activities within, both provincial and municipal elections in B.C. Local city clerks should be responsible for checking campaign finance statements, and reporting all possible abuses to Elections B.C.

Voters losing confidence as province delays

There have been numerous roundtables and reports on how to reform the current system over the past decade, but nothing has been done. Provincial cutbacks to Elections BC and failed attempts by muncipial councils have stalled previous reform efforts.

Back in 1998, Paddy Smith and Kennedy Stewart wrote a report for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs entitled "Making Local Accountabilty Work in British Columbia." The two Simon Fraser University professors advocated sweeping changes to the campaign finance system as a way of improving the quality of democracy in B.C. Smith informally called the report "the Cassandra project" after the Greek goddess who was able to see into the future and predict devastating consequences, but who was later cursed so that no one would believe her predictions. Likewise, Paddy explains, "the report resulted in lots of discussion, some with a little heat, but NO action was taken by the Ministry."

Voters are losing confidence in British Columbia's municipal governments, as evidenced by declining voter turnout in local elections. Although we may not agree on the specific way that campaign finance should be reformed, we can agree that reform is necessary. There is no reason why something that is so important to the health of our democracy has been neglected for so long.

The principles of transparency, accountability and fairness must be the primary characteristics of a reformed campaign finance system in order to help restore voter confidence and improve the health of democracy. With the upcoming 2008 civic elections less than a year away, there is no better time for change then now.

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