Editorial: Get big money out of politics

The B.C. government should go further than looking at recommendations on changing how political contributions are reported — it should undertake full-scale reform of campaign financing. The taint of corruption will hang over B.C. politics — and government — as long as there are no restrictions on donations to political parties.

Last month, Attorney General Suzanne Anton asked Keith Archer, B.C.’s chief electoral officer, to review how contributions are reported. Her request was sparked by complaints to the province’s conflict commissioner alleging that Premier Christy Clark received what amounted to gifts when people paid thousands of dollars to attend fundraising events with exclusive access to her.

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Politicians and registered constituency associations are required to file annual reports on all contributions they receive totalling $250 or more, while candidates and leadership contestants must file contribution reports within 90 days of a vote.

Archer has suggested three options: Monthly or quarterly disclosure, disclosure within 10 business days or disclosure within 24 or 48 hours. He says the third option would be the most transparent.

“Requiring the disclosure of political contributions within 24 or 48 hours is as close to real-time disclosure as is reasonably possible and would make B.C. a leader in this regard in North America,” he wrote in his report to the government.

Anton said in a statement that the government would review the report before deciding on its next steps.

Credit should go to the government for seeking Archer’s counsel, and having done so, it should heed his advice. There’s a lot of discomfort in B.C. with the role big money plays in the province’s politics.

Paying thousands of dollars to sit at dinner with the premier is only one example of how the well-heeled influence government with their donations. A majority of provinces have limits on who can donate, and how much, but with no restrictions on how much any person, corporation or organization can contribute, B.C. is the Wild West of campaign finance.

The B.C. Liberals protest that campaign contributions do not influence government decisions, but no one really believes that, least of all the donors. It would be beyond naïveté to believe that favours and special attention are not expected in return for large and continuing donations of cash or services.

The alternative, say the Liberals, is having taxpayers pick up the tab for campaign expenses through vote-based subsidies. British Columbians wouldn’t like that, Finance Minister Mike de Jong told the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer.

“Their tax dollars are being paid on their behalf, without their approval, to a political party,” de Jong said, referring to recent campaign-finance changes made in Ontario. “I don’t believe the majority of British Columbians are supportive of that.”

He’s right. But who says it’s an either/or situation? 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.

The Harper government completed its phasing out of the per-vote subsidy in 2015, and the country still managed to pull off an election. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has no plans to restore the subsidy.

Politicians and political parties still get special treatment from the federal government — they are reimbursed up to 60 per cent for campaign expenses, and that comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

A requirement for speedy and full disclosure of political contributions would be a welcome step, but it goes only halfway. Political donations from corporations and unions should be prohibited and individual contributions limited.

Democracy shouldn’t be — or even appear to be — for sale to the highest bidder.

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