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Editorial: Tame the ‘wild west’ of political cash

All three parties in the B.C. legislature have advocated campaign-finance reform. Let’s hope that goal doesn’t get overlooked or watered down after the dust settles and the legislators get back to the business of legislating. The B.C.
Photo - B.C. legislature buildings generic
The B.C. legislature buildings in downtown Victoria.

All three parties in the B.C. legislature have advocated campaign-finance reform. Let’s hope that goal doesn’t get overlooked or watered down after the dust settles and the legislators get back to the business of legislating.

The B.C. Liberals introduced a bill Monday that would have banned union and corporate donations to political parties. NDP and Green Party MLAs shot the measure down by denying it first reading. It was a move to force the government to fall and, we hope, not a sign that the opposition parties have weakened in their resolve. It’s long past time to tame the “wild west” of campaign financing, a reputation B.C. has justly earned and one it should quickly shed.

The Liberals came late to the party — a bit too late, obviously. For years, as they raked in millions from corporations and other wealthy donors, they insisted money doesn’t buy political favours.

In 2010, as the Local Elections Task Force was hearing recommendations on campaign finance reform, Bill Bennett, minister of community and rural development at the time, rejected the idea that money buys influence.

“You don’t buy influence because you give a large donation,” he said. “You give a large donation because you believe in the person for the job, and probably that candidate encapsulates your world view more so than the other candidate. The assumption or belief that somehow or other you are buying influence is actually quite insulting to anyone who is in public office.”

Donating to political parties is not an evil practice. On the contrary, it is a healthy, constructive democratic exercise and a way to make your voice heard. And many donors are motivated, as Bennett said, by a desire to support a candidate or party that shares the donor’s perspective and values.

But it would be naïve to believe corporations and other major donors don’t expect considerations in return for their gifts. Money and influence are usually holding hands. The pressure is always there, however subtle.

Not so subtle are billionaire political donors in the U.S. who are angry that Congress is not moving fast enough to repeal Obamacare and implement tax reforms.

According to the Associated Press, Texas billionaire Doug Deason has told congressional Republicans the “Dallas piggy bank” is closed until major action is taken on health care and taxes.

“Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed,” Deason said in a blunt message to Republican leaders. “You control the Senate. You control the House. You have the presidency. There’s no reason you can’t get this done. Get it done and we’ll open it back up.”

The Koch brothers, who have spent massively to finance conservative political action, have issued a similar warning. The sense of entitlement on the part of these wealthy donors is unmistakable. They obviously expect their politicians to be honest — if they’re bought, they should stay bought.

We’re grateful the situation hasn’t grown to that scale in B.C., and legislators have an opportunity to ensure it never does.

Before she saw the light and was defending unlimited donations, Premier Christy Clark said the alternative was to finance campaigns through taxation. What utter nonsense. We hope that idea has been completely discarded.

That said, the bill the Liberals proposed was a good one. The NDP and the Greens can’t be faulted for rejecting it as the Liberals’ last-ditch attempt to cling to power, but they should not hesitate to adopt it when they take over the reins of government, as is expected.

Democracy in B.C. has too long been tainted by the lack of restrictions on political donations. Imposing strong campaign-finance limits will bring a breath of fresh, clean air.