Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Campaign showed it's time for political spending controls

VICTORIA - You'll probably know the results of the election by the time you read this column.
But deadlines being what they are, I'm writing it just before heading off to vote at the local school.
Which makes it a good time to look at some of the bigger issues raised by this campaign that demand attention before the next election, including the increasing influence of big money, and the role of groups like the BC Teachers' Federation.
The mini-scandal over Liberal fund-raising practices only lasted a week. The party admitted wrongly taking money from charities and municipalities, and refunded the cash. Some defenders noted that all parties in power raise money in similar ways, including selling access to the leader, or cabinet ministers.
But that shouldn't be the end of the matter. The fact is the practice is wrong, and damaging to democracy. The underlying message of many party fund-raising efforts is that participants pay money - to go to a dinner, or a private reception, or a golf tournament - for a chance to get access to cabinet ministers and government officials.
Even if they just write a cheque, it is reasonable to believe that donors expect recognition. (Union donors, corporate donors, big individual donors - this isn't a left-right issue.)
Politicians deny that someone who donates $200,000 to a party, or $10,000 to a local campaign, is treated any differently than any other citizen.
But most people, possessed of common sense and life experience, don't believe it. "He who pays the piper, calls the tune, my grandmother always said.
So people think a big donor might get a phone call to government returned a little more quickly. Almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe "people with money have a lot of influence over the government," according to a 2000 survey. Some of the B.C. towns that paid to attend Liberal fundraisers said they wrote the cheques becuase it bought them a chance to lobby for local projects. Their assumption was that if you didn't pay the party, you didn't have as good a chance of getting even worthwhile plans approved.
It's the kind of fundamental problem that undermines democracy, convincing people that governments serve their financial supporters - union or corporate - ahead of the public.
The problem is easy to fix. Quebec, Manitoba and the federal government have all banned donations from unions, corporations and other organizations, and limited the size of individual donations.
The parties would likely have to get some sort of public subsidy to replace some of the lost revenue. But changing the system also would give us a chance to reduce the role of money in politics overall.
Spending on this campaign, when all the bills are in, will probably top $20 million. That's too much. Big money drives out volunteers, and replaces them with paid professionals, reducing community involvement. Ad budgets and campaign war rooms become more important than ideas or issues. And candidates and parties without a rich donor base are shut out.
At the same time, we should be taking another look at the role of outside interest groups - like the BC Teachers' Federation, or the BC Business Council - in election campaigns.
The groups now have to register, and report their spending. (Efforts to set spending limits have been successfully challenged on freedom of speech grounds.)
It may be that the problem will sort itself out. The BCTF's aggressive, and inept, role in this campaign has probably hurt the NDP more than it has helped the party, and there's little evidence that the outside interventions have helped either of the main parties significantly.
But it's still time to look at whether the increasing involvement of third party lobby groups is distorting the process, and more importantly to tackle the wide perception that big money matters more than the public will in our political system.
Footnote: Any action will likely take public pressure. The NDP and Greens have both called for a ban on corporate and union donations, but the Liberals support the current system. Change is unlikely over the next four years unless the public - perhaps given a little push by the Gomery Inquiry - demands action.


Anonymous said...

Much of this is true of course. However, what was most noticeable about this campaign was media bias. The Vancouver Sun's coverage was shameless and the Globe and Mail turned into little more than a Liberal campaign brochure. And that's not even counting the "unethical" poll the Globe commissioned and released days before the election.

The fact is, the partnership of CanWest Global, the Fraser Institute, and the B.C. Liberal Party are the most serious threat to democracy in B.C.

Campaign reform must include either an enforceable code of ethics for media or an end to media conglomerates.

Anonymous said...

What really needs looking into are donations from foreign controlled corporations. The BC Libs accepted huge $$ from foreign corps - legal? Maybe. Ethical? NO!

Anonymous said...

It's refreshing seeing an journalist actaully bring up the entire spectrum of political donations, not just those donations that are made directly.

If you can't stop them all. Why stop any of them? That's my feeling.