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Why Super Natural British Columbia Still Has Super Pathetic Campaign Finance Laws

Imagine having to read through 10,000 written comments on the same topic. It would probably be a touch on the tedious side — yet that’s exactly what a task force did back in 2010 before issuing 31 recommendations to reform our province’s municipal elections.

The task force included three Liberal MLAs and four elected officials from towns and cities across British Columbia.

What was the most egregious problem they found during their investigation? Campaign finance rules.

In a nutshell, local elections in B.C. have been the Wild West of campaign finance — with candidates allowed to take donations from anyone and spend as much as they like.

Third parties, such as business groups, have also been allowed to drop unlimited wads of cash during elections and, worse, they haven’t even had to register or disclose how much they spend.

Since B.C.’s local election laws were way out of date (campaign spending limits have been in place at the federal level since 1974 and at the provincial level since 1995), the plan was for the task force’s recommendations to be implemented in time for 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.

Well, surprise, surprise — the recommendations weren’t implemented in time for the 2011 elections after all.

And in those elections, Vancouver businessman Rob Macdonald infamously cut a cheque for $960,000 to the Non-Partisan Association. 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.)

Fast-forward three years to last week, and Bill 20, the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act, was passed in the legislature.

When introducing the bill, Coralee Oakes, the province’s community, sport and cultural development minister, hailed it as “the most significant update to B.C.’s local elections process in 20 years.”

The new 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 (read that again: up until now, local election ads didn’t even need to say who paid for them).

These are all steps in the right direction — but guess what’s missing?

Yup, candidates and third parties can still spend as much as they please. What is the province’s rationale for delaying the implementation of spending limits until at least 2018 — seven years after they were supposed to have been implemented?

The government claims 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.”

And then the province promises yet more “engagement” with “key stakeholders” on the issue. Come again?

What was the point of creating a task force that met several times and reviewed 10,000 comments before issuing its recommendations? Not only that, but the recommendations were reached by consensus of all task force members — which included B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Bill Bennett and two other B.C. Liberal MLAs.

The recommendation on expense limits was clear: “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.”

Why the province would delay on a piece of legislation that has near-unanimous support in B.C. is anyone's guess. University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff told DeSmog Canada one possible explanation “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.”

Robert Hobson, a Kelowna city councillor who was on the task force, called the continued delay in introducing spending limits “unfortunate.”

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

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

Perhaps in a sign of what's to come, during the recent Kitimat plebiscite Enbridge reported spending 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. (The spending was no biggie to Enbridge, which earned $1.2 billion in 2013, and also didn't seem to help them all that much with 58 per cent of voters rejecting the company's oil pipeline project.)

Still, given Enbridge’s spending in Kitimat, it’s not difficult to imagine how a lack of spending limits could undermine November’s local votes — particularly as British Columbia comes under unprecedented pressure from resource companies, many of them likely keen to dethrone local politicians opposed to their plans.

With no spending limits in sight, British Columbians' best bet is to watch like hawks this fall and make sure corporate advertising backfires — just like it did in Kitimat. It turns out most folks don't like the idea of big bucks swaying the outcome of local votes … it's just too bad the B.C. government doesn't appear to agree.

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Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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