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Seven-Year Delay On B.C. Local Election Spending Limits ‘Disappointing’: Member of Task Force

A member of the task force that issued recommendations calling on the B.C. government to reform local elections four years ago says it’s disappointing that limits on campaign spending have now been put on hold until at least 2018.

In the absence of spending limits, candidates and third parties — including companies such as Enbridge and Kinder Morgan — can spend unlimited amounts of money in this November's municipal elections.

“I’m a little disappointed that some of the recommendations on expenditures will have to wait until the next election,” Robert Hobson, a Kelowna city councillor for 26 years and past president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM), told DeSmog Canada.

“We certainly would have liked to have seen the recommendations implemented before the 2011 elections.”

Perhaps in a sign of what's to come, during the recent Kitimat plebiscite Enbridge spent at least $22,000, or about $4.50 per eligible voter — 30 times as much as the company could have spent per capita in the riding during a provincial election.

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.

Hobson was a member of a joint B.C. government-UBCM task force that issued 31 recommendations intended to be implemented before the 2011 local government elections.

“The task force strongly believes that if implemented these recommendations would make a positive difference to local elections in British Columbia,” the report read.

Fast-forward three years and now, as we approach municipal elections again this fall, the provincial government has introduced Bill 20, which will require third-party advertisers to register with Elections BC, identify donors of $50 and more and report expenditures for the first time — all steps in the right direction.

However, the legislation notably delays mandating spending limits for candidates and third parties — one of the key recommendations of the government’s own task force.

Hobson, a city planner by profession who is planning to retire from municipal politics this year, said the continued delay in introducing spending limits is “unfortunate.”

It’s going to be 2018, seven years later,” he said. “If the recommendations were worth putting in place, I would have thought they were worth putting in place sooner rather than later.”  

The task force report clearly called for expense limits to be implemented:

“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).”

In 2011, Vancouver businessman Rob Macdonald infamously cut a cheque for $960,000 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.)

Large donations “create, first of all, a lack of trust in the public,” Hobson says. “I think what large donations do is create a culture of … easier access to decision-makers. And access is key to public life.”

Seven years of delays after consensus reached

On its website, the B.C. government says its two-phase approach to implementing the reforms is to allow campaign participants to become familiar with the first set of changes before adding expense limits into local elections.

The province promises further engagement on the issue: “The intent of the engagement regarding expense limits is to gather information through public feedback and talking to key stakeholders, such as local governments, to help inform the development of expense limits.”

However, the task force Hobson was on already considered comments from 10,000 people before recommending expense limits — a recommendation reached by consensus by the task force, which was chaired by B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Bill Bennett and included several local government representatives.

A request to the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development for further clarification on the delay on spending limits did not receive a response.

University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff says one possible explanation for the delay “is that the municipal scene has become a farm team for the BC Liberals and they might not be too anxious to disturb any advantages currently enjoyed by potentially future provincial Liberal candidates.”

Democracy “is best protected if the electoral process is a level playing field that promotes voter equality,” Ruff says.

More than 1,600 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.

Given Enbridge’s spending in Kitimat, it’s not hard to imagine how a lack of spending limits could undermine November’s local votes, particularly as British Columbia comes under unprecedented pressure from oil and gas companies — many of them likely keen to dethrone the majority of the province's mayors and councils who are opposed to their plans to increase oil tanker traffic on B.C.'s coast.

Image credit: Duckie Monster via Flickr

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