Editorial: B.C. must must limit political donations

Let’s admit the truth. B.C.’s Wild West approach to political donations has created a climate of corruption. Big donors help determine the results of elections. And they’re convinced their contributions buy access and influence.

The Globe and Mail brought renewed attention to the issue with a story on a B.C. Liberal fundraising campaign. Rich donors can buy special access to Premier Christy Clark for up to $20,000, the newspaper reported. Simon Fraser University chancellor Anne Giardini hosted a dinner where 10 guests paid $10,000 each for the chance to enjoy an evening with the premier.

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The guest lists are secret. The Liberals won’t reveal how many times Clark and cabinet ministers have sold access to raise money for the party.

A year from now, Elections B.C. will report 2016 political donations. But the reports won’t say how the donations were made or what the contributors received in return.

Defenders of unlimited donations — at this point, only the B.C. Liberals provincially — claim big political donations don’t buy special treatment.

Few reasonable people believe that. The businesses, unions and individuals giving the money don’t.

In 2009, the provincial NDP received $211,000 from corporate donors.

For the 2013 election campaign, corporations donated $2.1 million to the party. The only difference was that the NDP looked likely to win, and corporate managers decided a donation would buy them preferential treatment from the new government.

Or, even more dramatically, consider Paul Martin’s federal Liberal leadership campaign in 2003. Martin was assured of victory, with no real opponents. But donors contributed $12.2 million to his campaign. They wanted to be seen as supporters, in expectation of future benefits.

It takes money to win elections. Big donors, by withholding their contributions, can damage a party’s chances. When they call, politicians listen, because their party’s future success — which they believe is essential to the future of the province — depends on keeping those donors happy.

Clark’s private dinners would be illegal under most Canadian political-finance laws.

Union and corporate donations are banned federally, and individual contributions are limited to $1,525 to each party and an equal amount to an individual candidate or riding association.

And a majority of provinces have limits on who can donate, and how much.

Not British Columbia. The Liberals, like the New Democrats before them, have rejected donation limits. A public-sector union could contribute $20 million to the New Democrats in an election year in hope of winning the ear of a more sympathetic government. A Malaysian corporation looking for favourable investment rules could give $200 million to the Liberals. In either case, the donation would be legal and voters wouldn’t know until long after the election.

The Liberal government is doing its best to ignore the issue. Its only argument against donation limits is the possibility that parties would then receive public funding.

That’s rubbish. The B.C. Liberals took in $4 million in individual contributions in 2014, the New Democrats $2.7 million. More than enough — with the support of volunteers — to run an effective political party.

Democracy only works if people believe their votes matter, and the government is treating all citizens equally.

When companies can pay $10,000 to buy access to the premier and discuss their concerns, all citizens are not being treated equally.

The solution is simple. Ban corporate and union political donations. Limit individual donations.

And put an end to the pall of corruption hanging over B.C. politics.

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