Take big money out of politics

How quickly politicians become what they once decried. The New Democrats charged resource-business executives $2,500 for a chance to meet privately with leader Adrian Dix and a selection of MLAs this week. The fundraiser was billed as an opportunity to share industry concerns with Dix, Times Colonist columnist Les Leyne reported.

The New Democrats were outraged when the late Stan Hagen, then minister responsible for resource development, organized a virtually identical Liberal fundraiser (except with a $2,000 fee). The government was selling access to the minister and raising the possibility of preferential treatment for those who would pay, the New Democrats alleged.

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It was legitimate criticism then, and it is now. Politicians shouldn't offer special access to those who will pay, or even create the appearance of special access. Providing closed-door meetings with politicians who can affect the future of companies or other stakeholders in return for a political donation is wrong. Businesses that aren't invited are right to wonder what special benefits their competitors are receiving. Businesses that decide not to pay have to fear they will be treated differently by government in the future.

If politicians want to hear from businesses or other interest groups, they can hold meetings. If organizations want to contribute to parties, they can do so. But to link the two is to suggest access - and special treatment - are available for those who can pay the price. And that the rest of citizens are on the outside.

Even the appearance of special treatment for big donors is corrosive. Energy Minister Rich Coleman - also responsible, inexplicably, for liquor policy - last month approved a tax change that will save one brewery, Pacific Western Brewing, millions of dollars.

The change has prompted criticism. Liberal MLA Randy Hawes says the government shouldn't be subsidizing one company at the expense of its competitors, and can hardly afford to give up tax revenue. Pacific Western provided in-kind donations worth $27,000 to a Coleman fundraiser weeks before the decision. (The contribution was returned once it became public.) And it has contributed $131,000 to the Liberal party over the last decade.

Coleman notes other breweries, including those opposed to the tax break, have contributed more money. There was no special treatment for a big donor, he says.

But many citizens find those assurances empty. Why contribute so much money, or pay for access to politicians, if not for a future payback? The solution is straightforward. Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba and the federal government have banned union and corporate donations. Other provinces have set contribution limits.

The B.C. Conservatives and NDP both support a ban on corporate and union donations and the Green party wants strict limits. Only the B.C. Liberals argue no restrictions are needed. The perception that big donations from businesses, unions and other donors get special treatment undermines democracy. It is past time for a ban to take the influence of big money out of politics.

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