It's an Alberta political scandal, but British Columbians should be blushing. Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz, owner of the Oilers, allegedly donated $430,000 to the province's Progressive Conservatives late in last year's election campaign, despite a $30,000 limit for political contributions.
A newspaper report says Katz, who is seeking $100 million from the government for a new arena for the Oilers, wrote a single cheque. The report says the party divided the contribution into smaller amounts and attributed them to Katz's family members and business associates to comply with the limit. Elections Alberta is investigating whether the law was broken.
Why should British Columbians be embarrassed by an Alberta scandal about a potential violation of political donation limits?
Because in this province, there are no rules to break. If Katz, a corporation or a union wanted to donate $430,000, or $4.3 million, that would be fine in B.C.
The Wild West approach to campaign donations fuels public cynicism and invites special-interest groups with lots of money to buy political influence. Voters decide elections. But political parties need money for advertising, polling, campaign staff and charter airplanes. A party without a fat bank account - even with great ideas - usually has little chance against free-spending rivals.
Which means big donors can decide the outcome of elections. Political parties concerned about winning will be reluctant to adopt platforms that would cost them the support of large donors.
Big donors inevitably have special influence. Katz's donation, for example, represented about 20 per cent of Conservative campaign contributions. If he calls Conservative politicians or party officials, they will answer the phone. (Or would have before news of the scandal broke.)
Major donors are trying to elect governments that will serve their interests.
But they are also trying to buy special status. Corporations donated $4.3 million to the B.C. Liberals for the 2001 election campaign, even though victory was assured without their contributions. That suggests the donations were intended to show support, in hopes the party would remember who its friends were.
Certainly, that's what citizens believe. Polls have found almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe people with money have special influence over government.
Defenders of the status quo point to campaign spending limits - which are useful - and public reporting of political donations, so citizens can see if big donors receive preferential treatment. But disclosure comes long after the election, donations can be hidden by using unfamiliar names and government decisions that benefit special interests are often shrouded in secrecy.
The solutions are simple. Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba and the federal government have banned union and corporate donations. Other provinces have set contribution limits. In some cases - such as the federal government - parties have received public subsidies to replace the lost revenue.
B.C. should ban corporate and union donations and limit individual donations to protect the democratic process. (The B.C. Conservatives and NDP both support banning corporate and union donations; only the Liberals argue no restrictions are needed.)
That would leave the parties with less money, particularly without a public subsidy. In 2009, the Liberals received $9.5 million in campaign donations, about 70 per cent from businesses. The NDP received about $5.4 million, with about 40 per cent from unions. Each had about $3 million in individual donations - much less.
But that would likely be a good thing. Paid professionals now run centralized, tightly controlled campaigns. Their futures depend on winning, and many spend the time between elections in taxpayer-paid political jobs or as lobbyists, influencing the people they helped elect.
Cutting party budgets could bring a shift toward campaigns run by volunteers, with local candidates carrying a greater responsibility to represent their party. And who would not be happy if parties could no longer afford attack ads?
It's time to end unlimited donations, and their corrosive effect on provincial and municipal politics in this province.