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Les Leyne: Public might force fundraising changes

Eventually, they might become victims of their own success. The B.C.
Delta South MLA Vicki Huntington has introduced a private member's bill to ban political donations from corporations and unions.

VKA-Leyne02832.jpgEventually, they might become victims of their own success. The B.C. Liberals might be shamed into putting some limits on campaign fundraising just by virtue of the fact they’re raking in so much more than their opponents it’s starting to look unseemly.

The latest tallies released Tuesday confirm the embarrassment-of-riches trend. The party is awash in money and bringing in over three times more than their opponents, the NDP.

All those $10,000 meet-and-greets, six-figure personal cheques and sustained contributions from corporate players add up. If they add up to the public impression that it’s all a bit much, B.C. Liberals will have to restrain themselves.

In 2015, the B.C. Liberals collected $9.9 million, just short of what they raised the previous year. The NDP posted $3 million in contributions, also comparable to last year.

The B.C. Green Party missed the filing deadline, but issued a statement saying it collected more than $400,000.

The Opposition is floating again the idea of banning corporation and union donations, a concept that Independent MLA Vicki Huntington already introduced Monday by way of a private member’s bill. It gets introduced regularly in the legislature, to no effect.

This year’s effort is complicated by the fact the NDP is doing its level best to compete with the Liberals. The New Democrats organized a $5,000-a-head breakfast in Toronto with leader John Horgan recently, and he had a $2,000-a-head breakfast at the Four Seasons in Vancouver on Wednesday, presumably with some corporate money at play. He’s scheduled to introduce the bill banning corporate and union donations today, which is a regrettable bit of scheduling.

His opening line at breakfast might well have been: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

The ban would put a dent in the NDP budget. It got $146,000 from corporations last year and $376,000 from unions, which represents 17 per cent of this year’s take.

But it would cost the B.C. Liberals a lot more. They listed $5.3 million in corporate donations last year, more than half the party’s published donation income.

Since all parties play by the same strict spending limits during the campaign period, the Liberals’ deep pockets are a factor only up to the spending limits. It’s during the off-season that the money comes in handy.

Other parts of the disclosure statement show the party is a sophisticated entity. It has a full-time fundraiser and spent $2 million on fundraising last year. It had a $1.79 million payroll last year and spent $398,000 on research and polling.

By comparison, the NDP payroll was $1.1 million, research and polling was $98,000 and fundraising cost $207,000.

It’s a free country, so people can donate how they please. And all the NDP has to do to raise more money is become more popular. But having lots of money doesn’t always win elections. Federal Conservatives outspent the Liberals in last year’s federal race and lost.

Still, the long-standing financial edge the B.C. Liberals have enjoyed for 15 years since first gaining power is built on lavish contributions from major corporate players.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong said: “I’m not going to pretend I’m disappointed that supporters are sending money to the governing party.”

Full disclosure is the only real requirement imposed on donations in B.C. and it will stay that way for a while, he said.

Changes or limits are “not in the cards right now,” he said.

He said people are entitled to draw their own conclusions about donations and about the public policies that are advanced by government.

“The public has got a pretty good nose for whether or not donations of any amount are influencing the course of public policy,” he said.

A politician once gained fame in a long-ago scandal by saying simply: “Money talks.”

If that public nose ever gets such a whiff, B.C. Liberals will regret not curbing the take.

Failing that, pressure from other provinces might force their hand. All the jurisdictions that B.C. measures itself against have limits on fundraising. B.C. is the only major province with an “anything goes” approach. Prolonged exposure as an outlier in the world of restraints for appearances sake might eventually force change.

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