Peeking behind campaign financing curtains

By Leslie Campbell, April 2015

Campaign finance reforms are welcome but the Province refuses to restrict donations.

Campaign financing disclosure statements from the November 2014 municipal elections are now available for your viewing pleasure. While they prove that votes don’t exactly mirror money invested in a candidate’s campaign, they are still unsettling and provide a good argument for change.

In the November 2014 Victoria municipal elections, former Mayor Dean Fortin spent roughly $40,000 more than Lisa Helps ($128,636 to $88,564), yet lost. Ida Chong, too, outspent Helps by $20,000 ($108,120). Stephen Andrew spent about $49,000, most of it financed by loans and himself. 

In the hard-fought Saanich race, incumbent Mayor Frank Leonard out-raised and outspent Richard Atwell by about $10,000 ($62,371 to $52,838). Newcomer Fred Haynes topped the spending among candidates for Saanich council at $25,393. When you are running against incumbents who have been in place for many years, the extra money definitely helps level the playing field.

Fortin’s budget grew 168 percent between the 2011 and 2014 elections, indicative of the serious competition he faced, but also a trend in BC’s local elections to raise and spend ever increasing amounts—which so far has been allowable under the rules (or lack thereof).

Dr Kimberly Speers, who teaches at University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration and with the national local government program operated by the University of Alberta and Dalhousie University, says, “Compared to other jurisdictions in Canada it’s kind of the wild west out here in terms of financial rules.”

Speers also has hands-on experience, having coordinated the campaign of Geoff Orr, the top-placing council candidate in North Saanich (on a budget of about $5000). “It seems local governments and citizens have been calling for changes to impose limits on donations for some years. Other municipalities have dealt with this by caps or some population formula,” she notes.

Avoiding ever costlier campaigns is crucial in a democracy, where fund-raising ability and one’s own wealth should not determine who runs or who wins. So it’s with some relief the Province, which has authority in such matters, has finally responded. Jackie Tegart, the chairwoman of the Province’s all-party Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits, told Vancouver Sun reporter Jeff Lee, “We are hearing loud and clear from people that what is happening at the municipal level needs to be reined in, that they believe there need to be limits. People want to know that running for municipal council is accessible and that you don’t have to be a millionaire.”

The committee is examining expense limit amounts for local elections candidates and third party advertisers. Though no further public hearings are slated for Victoria, written submissions are invited until April 17 (see www.leg.bc.ca/cmt/leel).

Unfortunately this government committee will not be reining in or even considering the other side of the equation—contribution limits—believing that limiting the expense side through a formula involving a per eligible voter amount will suffice to put some brakes on the mounting emphasis on fund-raising.

This means neither corporate nor union donations will be banned as they have been in many other cities, some provinces (Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia) and in federal elections as well. Those jurisdictions have also implemented limits on individual contributions. In Winnipeg, for instance, it’s $1500 for mayoral candidates and $750 for councillors. Toronto limits donations to $2500 for the mayor and $750 for councillors. Quebec now limits donations to provincial political parties to $100 per year. Federally, there’s a $1500 annual limit per individual political donation. 

How did the allowance of union and corporate donations play out in this region’s recent civic elections? Fortin’s campaign drew close to $49,000 (38 percent) from corporations and $38,000 (30 percent) from unions—that’s double the union donations he had in the previous election. Helps, raised close to $45,000 (51 percent) from corporations and businesses, and nothing from unions. Chong got $81,000 (75 percent) from corporations (about $22,000 from Matt McNeill’s pub operations alone) and nothing from unions. 

In Saanich, neither Atwell nor Leonard got union funding, but Atwell raised approximately $15,500 (29 percent) from businesses ($10,000 of that from a company owned by A.L. Vandekerkhove), while Leonard collected $33,600 (54 percent) from businesses. Councillors Brownoff, Murdoch and Plant all received a large portion of their donations from unions.

It may seem like small potatoes compared to what Vancouver has endured, including its history-making $960,000 donation from one business in the 2011 election, yet it should still give us pause. Our elected officials should represent the voters, period. Businesses donate—at the very least—to encourage business-friendly policies if not outright favours; similarily unions donate to candidates they feel are aligned with their values. Their assistance allows certain candidates to spend more on promotion—through advertising, brochures and postage, websites, and so on. It makes for an advantage, bought and paid for by special interests. And it makes it more difficult for elected officials to be unbiased—or seen as such.

The three top-spending council candidates in the 2014 Victoria election—Marianne Alto, Ben Isitt, and Jeremy Loveday—all had significant donations from unions. Isitt, for instance, received half of his $26,527 in contributions from unions—and virtually all of that from CUPE ($11,400). Same with Loveday ($8000 of union contributions of $10,811 with a total of $22,481 in contributions/expenses). 

Nothing against unions or CUPE in particular, but the City of Victoria does a lot of business with CUPE. It doesn’t look or feel right to have candidates financed by them or corporations. Imagine if PCL or MMM, the companies the City has contracted to build the problem-plagued Johnson Street bridge, were donating large sums to one of the candidates. It’s currently allowed—and it’s all wrong.

 

THE PROVINCE'S Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits has admirably endorsed the principles of fairness, neutrality, transparency and accountability in developing proposed spending limits. The committee is comprised of eight MLA’s: five Liberals and three NDPers, including Gary Holman, MLA for North Saanich and the Islands. An interesting exchange took place at one of their hearings in December.

Committee member MLA Jenny Kwan attempted to get contribution limits on the agenda. Her motion read: “As a result of the consultation undertaken by the committee, it was noted that a substantive number of submissions indicate that contribution limits and donation source are central to the principle of fairness. The committee therefore requests that consideration be given to expand the mandate …to include consideration of these matters.”

Vice-chair Selina Robinson, an NDP MLA for Coquitlam-Maillardville, spoke in favour of the motion: “My concern is that these issues came up as part of the concept of fairness. There were so many voices that we heard that, as they talked about fairness as a principle…there was definitely concern, and examples were provided where we wouldn’t be able to achieve fairness if there was no consideration of donation limits and who was providing these donations.”

But all four Liberal committee members, with the exception of Chair Tegart, spoke against the motion. Linda Reimer’s response was typical: “I would like to see this committee stick with its mandate, which was a result of the recommendations that came out of the Local Government Elections Task Force and honours what they recommended for local government elections.”

It didn’t seem to matter that person after person coming forward to speak at the hearings, or those writing in, had pleaded for contribution limits.

When Kwan pushed for a vote on her motion, the three NDPers were defeated by the Liberal members. 

Though provincially the NDP gets massive donations from unions (as well hefty sums from corporations “covering their bets” by donating to both parties), they are ready to give that up. But the Liberals seem paralyzed at the thought of managing without their corporate donations. And they realize that if they disallow them for municipal elections, they’d be hypocritical not to accept such measures at the provincial level. But they aren’t about to kill their golden goose. Thanks to number crunching by the Vancouver Sun, we know that “Corporate donors pumped $46 million into the Liberal Party coffers between 2005 and 2012.” As Dr Speers mused, “any changes they make at the municipal level might come back to bite them in the butt.”

Still, the committee couldn’t completely avoid alluding to the issue in a December report to the legislature: “The Committee heard strong support for the imposition of contribution limits, including a ban on corporate and union donations and a limit on the amount that can be donated by an individual…Contribution limits were seen as important in terms of fairness among candidates but also for other reasons, such as the need to avoid perceived undue influence and potential conflicts of interest.”

The Committee will complete its work and make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly by June 12, 2015. 

Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus. Remember you have till April 19 to get your 2¢-worth in at www.leg.bc.ca/cmt/leel.