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The nitty-gritty to B.C.'s campaign finance reforms

Setting a personal contribution limit, as the bill does, is a bit of a mug's game.

The B.C. government's proposed public subsidies for political parties may be hogging the media spotlight, but there are some other important aspects to the government's proposed changes on how political parties and elections are financed.

The legislation proposes a cut of 25 per cent to the province's campaign spending limits.

For a political party running a full-slate of 87 candidates, the overall limit would drop from roughly $11.6 million to $8.7 million.

It's a start, but at an estimated $2.75 per voter, it would still be twice that of the federal limit and higher than Québec ($1.37), Ontario ($2.08) and Alberta ($2.43).

Given the incredible generosity behind the government's proposed transitional allowance to support political parties as they wean themselves off big money, perhaps a bigger cut to the spending limit would be in order.

Setting a personal contribution limit, as the bill does, is a bit of a mug's game. The best result is likely one where no party is happy with the limit, but they'll all live with it.

In an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, former Attorney General Geoff Plant wrote: “(Bill 3's) problems start with its most basic feature, the $1,200 annual contribution limit.

“For a well-off married couple with adult children who happen to share their parents' political views, there's an opportunity to donate thousands of dollars a year, easily affordable for the well-to-do, but entirely out of reach for most citizens.”

Much like many of those families do now. Five members of the Ilich family have personally donated $940,535 to the B.C. Liberal party since 2005.

Under the proposed $1,200 cap, it would take 784 years to donate $940,535 or on average 157 years for each of the five.

Tackling one of the tougher areas of campaign finance reform, the government may have found the right balance between Canada's Charter of Rights and political accountability when it comes to third party spending in the lead-up to B.C. election campaigns.

In the last election, John Winter – former CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce – was the public face to Future Prosperity B.C., a pop up third party that went dark in the days leading to the dropping of the writ, thereby conveniently circumventing current rules which require any third party that advertises during an election campaign to disclose its campaign spending and all its donors in the six months preceding the election.

Winter was hoping to spend $2-million on Facebook ads criticizing NDP leader John Horgan.

At $125,000, the Kremlin's alleged attempt to influence the U.S. presidential campaign through Facebook ads was a comparative bargain.

As Winter's group went dark in the hours leading to the dropping of the writ, he told the Globe and Mail: "We feel we've done what we can do with what we had, without coming under the scrutiny of the Elections Act. Why would that be nefarious?"

In the face of such dark ops, the government has rightly steered away from setting a spending limit for third parties outside of a campaign period – three failed attempts at the B.C. Court of Appeal may have finally sunk in – and instead opted for applying the same contribution limits and criteria as those for political parties, while legislating a 60-day pre-campaign period where third parties will be required to disclose donors and spending to Elections B.C.

Something not touched on in the legislation, but contained in the former government's bill, is the issue of donor disclosure.

The government would seem to be content with the $250 annual threshold, while the Liberals wanted to cut it to $100. The Liberals are right.

And with a ban on corporate and union donations, disclosure will have to go further than it has in the past to capture a donor's employer to help ensure that “straw men” are not used as a means to get around the ban.

The disclosure rules have to some some bite as well.

Québec bars donors trying to hide the real identity of a donor from obtaining public contracts for 3-years.

Geoff Plant is dead on when he writes: “The outrage over the fundraising practices of the former governing party is a big reason they are no longer in government.”

It's a lesson all parties should heed.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.