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New Campaign Finance Rules For B.C. Local Elections Leave “Elephant In The Room”

Amid controversy about Enbridge’s spending in Kitimat before a plebiscite on its Northern Gateway oil proposal, the B.C. government introduced legislation on Wednesday that, if passed, will tighten rules for campaign financing and advertising in local government elections and referendums — but the changes come four years late and don't go far enough, says a campaign finance expert.

The new Local Elections Campaign Financing Act and Local Elections Statutes Amendment Act will require third-party advertisers to register with Elections BC, identify donors of $50 and more and report expenditures for the first time. It will also require all election advertising to clearly name a sponsor and will ensure all campaign donations and expenses are published on the Elections BC website. It will also extend the terms of office for local elected officials from three years to four.

“This is the most significant update to B.C.’s local elections process in 20 years,” Coralee Oakes, the province’s community, sport and cultural development minister, said in a statement.

However, the legislation still won’t mandate spending limits for candidates and third parties — a recommendation made by a joint B.C.-Union of B.C. Municipalities local government elections task force in 2010. The government says expense limits will be broached in a second phase of legislation before the next local election in 2018.

The task force, which reviewed more than 10,000 submissions from groups and individuals, said in its report that the intent was for its recommendations to be put in place for the 2011 local elections.

"One task force, one white paper, four years of procrastination, and the elephant is still in the room,” said Dermod Travis of Integrity BC, a non-profit that advocates for electoral finance reform.

In a submission to the province on elections reform, Integrity BC stressed the importance of implementing spending limits sooner rather than later:

The opportunity to fix a broken system, to increase accessibility to public office and to strengthen local democracy should not be lost in this process, even if it is only for one more cycle of local elections. Without meaningful electoral finance reform that includes strict election spending and contribution limits, candidacy for local government will — by and large — remain the purview of the affluent and well-connected and the public's faith in local government will continue to diminish.

The task force had clearly called for expense limits to be implemented. Its report said:

The task force believes that expense limits could increase accessibility and fairness by levelling the playing field among candidates; encouraging candidate participation; and reducing the need for large contributions to fund expensive campaigns … applying limits to third parties is important to ensuring that third party advertising cannot be used to work around restrictions on campaign spending (and accordingly, transparency).

Expressing further concerns about the impact of third-party advertisers, the report said:

Third party advertisers can have a significant impact on democratic debate in a community, but the current rules do not provide sufficient clarity on obligations of third party advertisers.

More than 1,660 elected positions on more than 250 government bodies are filled through local elections in B.C. The next local elections will be held on Nov. 15, 2014.

In the 2011 election, the largest donation was $960,000 from Vancouver businessman Rob Macdonald to the NPA. In many other Canadian cities, donations of this size aren't allowed — in Montreal, the annual cap is $300, in Toronto it’s $2,500, in Winnipeg it’s $750 and in Calgary it’s $5,000.

According to a 2010 public opinion survey conducted by the Mustel Group and commissioned by then SFU professor Kennedy Stewart, 74.5 per cent of respondents felt there should be a limit on how much any one person can donate to a local election campaign and two-thirds supported a ban on corporate and union donations.

Even if the new legislation was in affect now, the Kitimat plebiscite as structured wouldn’t fall under the new rules (a plebiscite is non-binding) — but a vote on a local bylaw or a referendum on a regional district service would. As it stands, Enbridge won't have to disclose its expenditures, which are likely to exceed $20,000 — six times what the company would be allowed to spend during a provincial vote.

Campaign spending limits for candidates and political parties have been in place at the federal level since 1974 and at the provincial level since 1995 — but it looks as though B.C.’s local elections and referendums will roll on without them until at least 2018.

Photo by Pete via Flickr

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Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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