Levelling the playing field

By Leslie Campbell, November 2014

In seeking a fairer election process, for starters, follow the money.

At the first all-candidates meeting for the City of Victoria, one advantage of incumbents over newcomers was clearly on display: They are much more practiced at giving relatively intelligent-sounding one-minute answers to highly complex questions. With 24 candidates on the stage, many only got to speak for one-minute during the whole evening. 

But not the incumbents. With the majority of questions directed their way—they do, after all,  have more to answer for—they got to shine more often, Mayor Dean Fortin in particular. This is how the advantage of incumbency tilts elections to re-elections.

This month in Focus, we’ve attempted to even the playing field a bit. We certainly can’t cover all candidates in all 13 municipalities (about 250 in total). So we’ve concentrated on the core municipalities, profiling only the newcomers to the mayoral races—in Victoria, Oak Bay and Saanich. (We would have included Esquimalt mayoral candidate John Ducker, but he declined to be interviewed unless we sent him questions in advance.) 

That there are credible alternative choices in many municipalities is a healthy sign. It’s also a sign that people are fed up with the dysfunction at the CRD around sewage treatment, and in Victoria around the bridge. 

However, name recognition still carries a lot of weight in elections, giving incumbent candidates a huge advantage. Incumbents also have an advantage when it comes to fundraising. At least one of them—Dean Fortin—has, at least in the past, raised funds throughout his time in office. Such monies help candidates further enhance name recognition through signs, brochures and advertising. Those with larger campaign chests hire staff to manage their campaigns, put up websites, and advise on campaign strategy. 

There’s another bump on the road to a level playing field: Certain candidates like Fortin and Ida Chong, through their political party associations, can call on party machinery to help in various ways, including getting their vote out on election day.

All of which raises the question of whether our election processes meet the prerequisite of equal accessibility that true democracy demands. 

At the very least, we should know where candidates’ funds come from. This election’s municipal candidates will have until mid February to submit their donation and expense reports, so we won’t be able to see behind those curtains till next spring. But looking at the figures from the last civic election in Victoria is illuminating. For one thing, it’s easy to see, given the rules of the past, how some donations could simply be hidden. Hopefully the new Local Elections Campaign Financing Act will at least provide better oversight in this regard.

According to Mayor Dean Fortin’s official declaration for his 2011 campaign, he raised $70,530—a huge sum for a city of Victoria’s size. Transferring in surplus funds from the previous election, he had $76,664—virtually the same amount as those of the six most popular council candidates combined. Paul Brown, the main mayoral contender in that race, spent $14,324—over $5000 from his own pocket.

Fortin spent $7.60 for each of the 10,800 votes he received. Paul Brown spent $3.37 per vote. Councillor Geoff Young, who topped the council polls with 8940 votes, spent an average of $1.02 per vote.

Of Fortin’s $77,000, a lot was raised at three fund-raising dinners held in 2009, 2010, and 2011, so some portion of the $50 tickets went to restaurants (one report shows it was $20). If he had added the cost of the dinners to his expense total, it would have been a breathtaking $93,000. 

It’s easy to see from the donors list that Fortin enjoys the support of many unions and corporations. Including the dinner funds, he received over $19,000 from unions, including CUPE ($4000); Victoria Labour Council ($4000), BCGEU ($8500), and the Firefighters Association ($750). CUPE and the Firefighters have had new contracts providing significant increases ratified by the City recently. These increases are generally transferred to management wages as well. According to Open Victoria, “City personnel costs—excluding police, which would only worsen the picture—have increased by 42 percent over the last 10 years…The average salary and benefits package for a City of Victoria worker now equals $84,270. In 2008, it was $75,070.”

About $32,000 of Fortin’s campaign chest (including the dinners) came from businesses, about half of which came from development-related firms: Bayview, Tri-Eagle  Development Corp, T.L. Housing Solutions, Hartwig Industries, Townline, Railyards and others.

I am not clear why we would allow our democratic elections to be funded this way. Do we naively believe that corporations and unions invest in just anyone? Wouldn’t they invest in those they think will serve their self-interest?

Businesses and unions—along with certain wealthy individuals—already carry more weight with government than the average citizen. Besides being detrimental to City budgets and objectivity, allowing such money into politics makes citizens more distrustful of government and democratic process. Here’s how that works: Dean Fortin’s financial agent in 2011 also played that role for two Fortin-friendly council candidates (Pam Madoff and Marianne Alto). He was a manager with RBC, a corporation which donated to Fortin’s campaign. That corporation also became the bank of record for the City of Victoria in 2011. It may well be totally unconnected—an RFP was tendered for banking services. But even the perception of connection makes us uneasy and cynical about our government.

Interestingly, what we allow in BC municipal elections would be illegal in a federal election and in many other provinces and cities. In provincial elections, BC limits expenditures to $70,000 in the campaign period though sets no limits on contributions. The federal government has capped donations from an individual at $1200 annually. Quebec limits donations to only $100 per year to help combat corruption. Winnipeg, Calgary and Toronto all have caps. The feds, along with Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Quebec do not allow any donations from corporations or unions. In Winnipeg fundraisers can only be held during an official campaign period (11 months for registered mayoral candidates).

But in BC municipal elections, the sky’s the limit. We allow people and organizations from anywhere in the world to donate any amount to a party or campaign. One businessman donated $960,000 to Vancouver’s NPA in the last election. 

I am not opposed to unions or business or development or wealthy people. And I am certainly not against candidates being able to differentiate themselves through advertising. But without some sort of cap, we make a mockery of democracy. It’s simply not fair for any one individual or organization to weigh into elections with unlimited funding. 

If it seems shocking we haven’t dealt with this by now, well, it’s not for lack of trying. The 2010 Local Governments Election Task Force (which included Cabinet Minister Bill Bennett and two other Liberal MLAs and heard from 10,000 people and groups) recommended that expense limits be set for all campaign participants to “increase accessibility and fairness by levelling the playing field among candidates; encouraging candidate participation; and reducing the need for large contributions to fund expensive campaigns.”

SFU professors Stewart Kennedy and Patrick Smith wrote a thorough report in 2010, urging a $1000 limit on total individual donations per election cycle, and recommending that union and corporate donations be banned, as well as those from non-municipal residents. Integrity BC called for spending limits, a cap on contributions, and a ban on contributions from unions and corporations in time for the 2014 local elections. Municipal politicians wanted change too. Vancouver’s council, rattled by escalating campaign budgets, unanimously asked for limits to both expenses and contributions, as well as a ban on all corporate and union donations.

Despite such pleas, advocacy, and polls showing the majority of BC residents want to keep money out of politics, the Province’s new legislation changed nothing around spending and donation limits or sources. They did change the term of office, however: Elected municipal officials now get to sit for four years rather than three.

Hmmm…four years in which incumbents get to glad-hand, practice their sound bites, fund raise, and screw up.

Next spring will be a bit after-the-fact to learn who funded whom. But there’s nothing preventing you from asking candidates about their financing—and nothing preventing candidates from setting limits for themselves and being more transparent sooner. Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi ran his 2013 campaign on a self-imposed limit of 65 cents per eligible voter. In Victoria this would translate to a maximum of about $57,000—or 25 percent less than what Fortin spent in 2011.

Despite the drama of recent weeks around ISIL, Ebola and shootings at Parliament, it is our city governments that shape our neighbourhoods, the places where we live, play, and work. This round of municipal elections in Greater Victoria is one of the more exciting ones. There are some highly capable contenders for mayors and councils. Learn about them here and on their web pages and at the town halls. While incumbents generally have an advantage on a variety of fronts, nothing is guaranteed. Your vote can make a difference.

UPDATE: Just after Focus went to press, the Province announced a Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits to examine principles related to local elections expense limits for elector organizations and third party advertisers. According to the Province,“To support its work, the committee is inviting stakeholders and the public to make a written submission on principles for the relationship between elector organizations and their endorsed candidates with respect to expense limits; and principles for establishing expense limits for third party advertisers. The deadline for receiving written submissions is Nov. 21, 2014.”

To make a written submission, or to learn more about the work of the committee, go here.

To see candidate disclosure statements from the 2011 Victoria electon, see here


Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus. She promises to fill readers in on current campaign expenditures in the spring. Meanwhile, she sincerely thanks all those running in this election. It takes immense energy and dedication to community (not to mention a thick skin) to participate in this crucial way.