B.C. ELECTION: For a Few Dollars More
Features / May 3, 2017
Why B.C. has long been considered the wild west of political donation
Braden Klassen, Contributor
When it comes to regulating the nature of political donations, B.C. has been referred to as the “wild west” by publications such as The Globe and Mail and The New York Times.
There are a number of reasons why the provincial government has earned this label for the province. According to Elections B.C., the Liberal government has received $70.2 million from various corporations since 2005—a sum that greatly overshadows the amount of money corporations have donated to the other provincial parties.
Every province sets its own laws when it comes to who can donate to political parties and how much they can give. Many provinces have enacted legislation that restricts certain individuals and organizations from donating and limits the amount that people, unions, or companies are allowed to give.
For example, the NDP government in Alberta lowered the political donation cap in 2015, meaning that individuals were limited to donating $4000 dollars per year to parties and/or candidates. The principle behind limiting donations is to “get big money out of politics” so that the parties in power can act fairly on behalf of the province without being obliged to protect the interests of their most prolific donors.
However, B.C.’s laws do not restrict political donations made by individuals and corporations, which means that the provincial government is able to accept substantial amounts of financial support from anybody or any company that has a vested interest in their party’s success. Many believe that this increases the chances that the government will decide to prioritize the benefits of their wealthy donors over the needs of others—what critics call “pay-to-play politics”—and constitutes a clear breach of ethics, undermining democracy and the government’s mandate to fairly serve the people of British Columbia.
In response to this, the NDP and Green Party of B.C. have both pledged to institute regulations that would cap the amount that people are allowed to donate.
Premier Christy Clark has been criticized for appearing at a number of large party fundraisers, where attendees had to pay thousands of dollars for entry. Clark reportedly receives a $50,000 yearly stipend from the party’s coffers, on top of her $195,000 taxpayer-footed government salary.
In 2016, a B.C. political watchdog organization called Democracy Watch lodged a formal complaint against the Liberals, claiming that there was a conflict of interest present in the fact that Clark was making herself personally available to talk with wealthy fundraising event-goers while also claiming her lucrative stipend.
The Conflict of Interest Commissioner in B.C. is Paul D. K. Fraser, and he was appointed under Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government on the first day of 2008. Fraser was tasked with verifying whether or not the party had contravened the Conflict of Interest Act by having the premiere herself attend party fundraisers, while also receiving hefty annual compensation from the party.
Fraser ultimately ruled that the party had not done anything in violation of the act, even though Clark did end up deciding not to continue with accepting the stipend.
After the ruling was announced, Democracy Watch recommended that Fraser recuse himself from the role after the organization had learned that his son, John Paul Fraser, was serving as a member of the Liberal Party in the role of Deputy Minister of Government Communications & Public Engagement, and was a long-time personal friend of Clark’s. The watchdog contended that Paul Fraser was himself caught in a conflict of interest because he had a family member with such close ties to the party that his ruling would affect. They also discovered that Fraser Milner Casgrain, the law firm that Paul Fraser had worked at years before his appointment, had donated over $25,000 to the Liberal Party in the mid 2000s—though in a letter to NDP MLA David Eby, Fraser claimed that he “had no knowledge that this contribution had been made.”
B.C. is not the only province without a cap on political donations. The laws in the Yukon, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and PEI all permit people to donate however much money they want. But other provinces like Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec all impose limitations on donations in order to minimize party bias towards wealthy donors.
This is not to say, however, that there is a total absence of rules when it comes to donating in B.C.. According to Elections B.C.’s website, “The Election Act prohibits unregistered political parties and constituency associations, charities, and political parties registered under the Canada Elections Act from making political contributions.”
Notably, this list of restrictions does not include corporations or people in other countries, who, like resident British Columbians, are also free to donate as much money to parties as they wish.
The policy of allowing international interests to donate to political parties is not unique to B.C., but it is banned in other places in Canada. There have been a number of questions raised as to why interested parties from outside the country are able to contribute money to the B.C. political pantheon, even though they cannot vote or participate in political campaigns through any other means.
In April, the Liberals returned $174,000 dollars in donations after it came to light that the donations had been made under illegal pretenses. Evidently, people who had been donating smaller amounts to the party were being reimbursed by employers and corporations in what critics have called an attempt to obscure the source of the donations, which violates one of the few laws that B.C. has in place to regulate political donations.
The Liberals have proposed to institute an independent panel that would be charged with reviewing the legitimacy of the donations received by the provincial government, but the party says that the establishment of that panel is going to have to wait until after the election.