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Vaughn Palmer: Independent MLA leads the charge for election finance reform

Oct 30 2016

VICTORIA — As the legislature resumed Monday after a two-week spring break, Independent MLA Vicki Huntington was first on her feet during introduction of bills with as timely a measure as the house has seen this session.

Her proposed Election Finance Amendment Act addressed all aspects of the recent controversy over political fundraising by both the governing B.C. Liberals and the Opposition New Democratic Party.

A ban on corporate donations. A ban on union donations.  A ban on donations from anyone not resident of British Columbia. A $1,500-a-year cap on contributions by individuals.

If enacted into law, Huntington’s legislation would mean no more $10,000-a-plate dinners like the one Premier Christy Clark hosted last month in Metro Vancouver. Nor any more $5,000 a ticket breakfasts with out-of-province donors like the one NDP leader John Horgan hosted last week in Toronto.

Horgan promised in a media scrum last week to initiate a legislative crackdown on political fundraising.

But Huntington had already filed notice of her intentions on the legislative order paper, thereby giving herself a two-day procedural head start on the NDP leader in introducing her measure into the house.

Not often does a short-staffed independent get the jump on the Opposition and Huntington made the most of it Monday.

“British Columbia has the distinction of being the largest Canadian province with no restriction on who finances our political campaigns,” she declared. “B.C.’s campaign finance rules remain the weakest in the country. Parties and candidates can solicit any amount of money from any organization or any person anywhere in the world.

All to the detriment of public confidence in the democratic process, as Huntington sees it.

“In B.C., there is a public conviction that money talks, that democracy is bankrolled by special interests. It is a conviction that undermines not only the legitimacy of our democracy but also our trust in the institutions of a democracy.

“In this province, there are no rules to break,” she added, quoting an editorial from the Victoria Times Colonist. “The Wild West approach to campaign donations fuels public cynicism and invites special interest groups with lots of money to buy political influence.”

By way of an official description of the proposed legislation, Huntington said “it reduces the perception of a conflict of interest or preferential treatment by candidates or political parties toward large financial supporters by setting donation limits and eliminating corporate, union and out-of-province donations.”

Not for her the view put forward by the New Democrats and their supporters that large financial contributions create a perceived conflict of interest for the government but not for the government in waiting.

Only the party in power could be suspected of giving preferential treatment on an immediate basis. But in the event of a change of government, the new party in power might also be accused on dispensing favours on the basis of who donated thousands of dollars to its campaign, and who did not.

Still, Huntington’s main target was obviously the B.C. Liberal government, which has repeatedly refused to consider legislative limits on donations and lost no time Monday ruling out that possibility once again.

But for all the resolve the Delta South independent MLA brings to the issue, she told reporters that she agonized over one provision, namely the $1,500 cap on donations.

It takes no small amount of money to run a campaign, conceded Huntington, who knows whereof she speaks as a matter of family history.

Her father, Ron, was a federal MP and briefly a cabinet minister. Vicki is no longer a member of the federal Conservative party, but finds “they call all the time for donations.”

Through three provincial elections in Delta South — two wins and one loss — Huntington has struggled to raise the necessary $50,000 or so to run her own campaigns as a stand-alone independent.

Consequently, she thinks B.C. might eventually have to consider public funding of political parties as a substitute for big money donations from corporations, unions and individuals.

That option has drawbacks as well. Most models for public funding are driven by a party’s showing in the last election — $1.50 a vote, say. But a formula based on past performance could shortchange independents and newcomers to the arena.

In any event, Huntington regards public financing as needing to attract public support before it could be implemented. For now, she thinks all parties should join in supporting legislation that would start by cleaning up the current system.

“This bill reasserts the principles of our democratic values by limiting the amount that can be donated and the right to donate to the very people of British Columbia that we report to — the individual voter,” as she said in her introduction in the house. “The Election Finance Amendment Act is a practical change that will show all British Columbians that we honour their vote and that we will be accountable to them and only to them.”

Not that Huntington has any illusions of success. Though first out of the gate, she’s otherwise in the same position as Horgan, who is expected to table his variation on the theme Wednesday. Green party leader Andrew Weaver has also called for campaign finance reform.

The only way any aspect of their proposals would be enacted into legislation is after a change of government. Until then, B.C. will remain the Wild West — and the Liberals wouldn’t have it any other way.

vpalmer@vancouversun.com

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