Christy Clark recently turned down the opportunity to limit foreign and corporate donations to political parties in campaigns. She justified her position by simply stating, “I represent everyone.”
Yet a new poll conducted by Insights West found the vast majority of British Columbians — 86 per cent — support a ban on both corporate and union political donations.
The poll, conducted on behalf of the Dogwood Initiative, a democracy advocacy organization, suggests Clark’s cozy relationship with major foreign and corporate donors could put her in the hot seat leading into the province’s next election.
That seat is likely to be even hotter after revelations Clark takes a cut of funds donated to the B.C. Liberal party through exclusive cash-for-access events that can cost up to $20,000 dollars to attend.
A high percentage of B.C. Liberal donors, 81 per cent, and an even higher number of B.C. NDP voters, 91 per cent, support putting a ban on corporate and union donations before the next election.
B.C. has long been called the “wild west of campaign donations” because, unlike most other provinces in Canada, it has no rules to prevent unlimited, foreign, union and corporate money from pouring into elections.
It’s a problem the Dogwood Initiative would like to see remedied through its Ban Big Money campaign before British Columbians hit the polls in early 2017. The group’s recent House of Cards-esque trailer for the corrupting influence of money in B.C. elections has been viewed on Facebook over 85,000 times.
Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director at Dogwood, said B.C. has created a situation “that has made bribery legal.”
He said the recent spate of arrests of cabinet ministers in Quebec on corruption and fraud charges were for activities “commonplace and totally protected by law in B.C.”
Recent Elections B.C. data on 2015 political donations shows that since 2005 the B.C. Liberal party raised $70.2 million from corporate and business donors. In that same period three donors exceeded donations of one million: Encana Corporation at $1.1 million, the Aquilini Group ($1.2 million) and Teck Resources ($2.3 million).
“So you ask companies, ‘why would you donate that money to a political party?’ It’s not charity; it’s an investment because you get something back,” Nagata said.
“You get policy decidedly tilted in favour of people who are able to fund political campaigns and ordinary citizens have their voices diluted in this process.”
“You go anywhere in this province and it’s hard not to see that virtually everything is for sale,” Nagata said, listing contracts for the Site C dam, B.C.’s trophy hunting, U.S. coal exports, LNG projects and the contemptible Vancouver real estate scene.
“There are a lot of decisions by government —decisions or calculated inaction — that amount to outcomes that are against public interest.”
“In B.C. because laws are so permissive people can donate unlimited amounts of money from overseas,” Nagata said. “So you don’t even have to be from Canada to have a say in public policy in B.C.”
Dermod Travis from IntegrityBC said there are a number of issues with political donations in B.C. that cause him concern.
“The most concerning thing is that money is being donated by corporations and individuals that can’t vote in the province,” Travis said. “If you can’t check a ballot, you shouldn’t be allowed to donate funds.”
Travis said British Columbians are worried about the level of influence companies like Encana and Teck Resources are able to purchase with consistently large donations.
“With Encana you see exactly what kind of sweetheart deals people have come to expect,” he said.
Travis said the BC Liberals consistently award contracts to companies that are party donors.
“Look at the companies that Partnerships B.C. has awarded construction contracts to and you will see a direct correlation between being contracts and being a donor to the BC Liberals.”
“People don’t have enough assurance the government is protecting the public’s interest, rather than corporate interests,” he said.
Travis also criticized the data publicly released by Elections B.C., saying the documents aren’t easily searchable which creates convenient loopholes for individuals who want to mask their donations.
“There are little tricks that get played in the process,” Travis said. “I’ll use my own name as an example: if you were to use the Elections B.C. database and search Dermod Travis any donations I made as Dermod J. Travis would not show up and that’s a problem.”
Both individuals and companies take advantage of this “initial game,” Travis said, “you might be left with the impression it was done deliberately so you couldn’t find their donations.”
He said an outright ban on corporate donations and a strict cap on individual donations would eliminate that problem.
“I think it creates an incredible level of cynicism that’s going to take a long time to remove even with a ban on these types of donations,” Travis said.
“It creates sense that there are winners and losers and the only way to be a winner is to be a donor.”
By leaving donor rules so open, government is fostering a sense of mistrust in the public, Nagata said.
“By refusing to take action to limit corporate money in elections they are leaving the question to voters: is government making decisions on behalf of citizens and in the public interest or are those decisions informed by the amount of money donated to politicians’ campaigns by these large corporations?”
“Obviously you don’t give someone a million dollars and say do whatever you want. There’s an expectation of a quid pro quo,” Nagata said.
“Citizens can’t collectively donate that amount of money to balance that influence — all you have is your vote,” Nagata said. “People don’t even do that because they feel cynical about the whole process.”
“That’s what we see, that’s our diagnosis. It seems the solution is simple: the government could restore public trust by not taking money from these outside influences and ensure they are making decisions on behalf of those who elected them.”
For more on political donations and how they cost taxpayers money, watch Kai Nagata break it down in this video below:
Image: Province of British Columbia/Flickr.