Following the money

By Leslie Campbell, April 2013

Democracy is a sham when donations rule.

As you read through this edition, you’ll likely note an underlying theme—a yearning for our institutions to be more democratic, to provide “the people” with greater power. We want to know what goes on behind the scenes so we can judge for ourselves whether those running the show are acting wisely and responsibly, unbiased by money and friends.

Rob Wipond’s article addresses this theme very directly with some candidates in the upcoming provincial election, asking them how they will “re-democratize” governance. Among many other recommendations, some mentioned the need to reform campaign financing. Right now in BC—unlike in most other provinces or at the federal level—there are no limits on donations to political parties. 

I want to apologize in advance about all the numbers about to come at you. But they do paint a clear picture of a system at odds with democracy. Money should not be able to so blatantly buy political influence.

Donations for 2012 are not yet available, but in 2011 the Liberals raised about $8 million from 6729 donors. That works out to an average donation of about $1200. Almost two-thirds of the total came from corporations, which I’ll tell you more about momentarily.

In that same one-year period, the BC NDP raised close to $3 million from 26,053 voters averaging $111 each. 

The Green Party only raised $75,626 from 1046 donations for an average of $72 per donation. The BC Conservatives received $104k from 369 donations for an average donation of $283.

Which corporations gave the Liberals all that money? Last month’s feature by Alan Cassels got me looking into donations from pharmaceutical companies (see his update this month on page 8). Most of the big drug firms are donors to the Liberals. Between 2008 and 2011 they include: Pfizer ($21k), Merck Frost ($13k), GlaxoSmithKline ($19k), Novartis ($19k), AstraZaneca ($6k), and Eli Lilly ($4.5k). Canada’s Research Based Pharmaceuticals, an association representing over 50 drug companies, donated over $18k. 

But it’s the resource sector that shows the most generosity to the Liberals. For instance, in the forest sector between 2008 and 2011, Brookfield Asset Management (parent company of Island Timberlands) provided $95k; Western Forest Products $72.5k, Weyerhauser $35.5k, Timberwest $87k and Catalyst $59k. No wonder forestry regulations have been relaxed.

Can we really expect the BC Liberals to be totally unbiased about the pipelines set to advance across our province when they have accepted donations amounting to $453k from energy heavyweight Encana—or even $47k from Enbridge—in the past four years? Or to be open to the possibility that fracking for natural gas is too risky to watersheds when they are beholden to companies like Apache ($23k), Chevron ($21k), Talisman ($49k), Fortis ($34k), and Imperial Oil ($41k)?

Will communities with mining operations in their backyard have equal access to the government’s ear when the ruling party has received funding from that company? In the 2008-11 period, Barrick Gold (the largest gold mining company in the world) gave the Liberals $50k, Elk Valley Coal provided $68k, and Goldcorp a whopping $477k. Teck Cominco/Teck Resources’ and Teck Highland Valley Copper’s combined donations over the period hit $700k. After a long court battle, in 2012 Teck Cominco confessed to polluting the upper reaches of the Columbia River for nearly a century through the Teck smelter in Trail. And its Alaskan mine was ranked by the EPA as one of the most polluting facilities in the US. Why would the Liberals want to be in their pocket?

Of course if you do a similar search at BC Elections for the NDP, you come up with large donations from most of the unions: From 2008 through 2011, the BC Government Employees Union donated $900k to the NDP; the BC Federation of Labour $711k, BCGEU $100k, CUPE $536k, United Steelworkers $438k, Construction Trades $70k, Hospital Employees Union $364k, and Canadian Auto Workers $134k. I guess we’d be excused for thinking that the NDP could be swayed in their policy-making by these unions, wouldn’t we?

Integrity BC, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to restoring trust and confidence between citizens and their elected officials, recently wrote to all BC political parties stating, “It’s time to take big money out of BC politics by banning corporate, union and out-of-province donations. The fundamental principle must be: if you can’t vote for a candidate or party, you can’t write out a cheque to it.” Besides the ban, the organization also recommends individual donations “be capped to ensure that deep pockets don’t drown out other voices.”

Fortunately, other than the Liberals, the major parties are on record as supporters of such measures. But funny things can happen when a party takes power, so if the NDP does win, we’ll need to make sure they don’t drag their feet on this essential re-democratizing task.

Limiting political party donations is certainly not a cure-all. But it’s a start. In the near future we are all going to have to pull together to address something Briony Penn alludes to in her article this month: the real challenge of how to have both healthy ecosystems and the jobs and social programs that also make for a good life. We’ll need citizens who are re-ignited about democracy, not cynical because of partisan politics perverted by money.

Editor Leslie Campbell is grateful to the Elections BC website—where you too can type in the name of any union or corporation and see who they supported—and by how much.