VICTORIA - Of course it matters if businesses and unions spend a lot of money to influence election results.
The political parties think so. The Liberals say the NDP is nestled in the deep pockets of big labour. The New Democrats say the corporations have bought special treatment from the Campbell government.
There's been a lot of controversy and concern around third-party advertising this time around. The financial reports just filed with Elections BC show an explosion in spending this year. In 2001, third parties - people who wanted to influence the election outcome, but didn't want to give money to a party - spent $315,000.
Four years later, they came up with more than $4 million. That's 50 times the amount the Green Party raised for the campaign, and closing in on the NDP's $6 million. By the next election, they could be spending as much as the parties.
And the reported spending is likely a gross underestimate. Third-party campaigners have to report spending during the 28-day election campaign, but not any efforts outside those four weeks. If a union, or business, spends $1 million in the 10 days before the campaign starts, that can stay a secret.
Unions were the big third-party spenders during the election campaign, putting more than $3 million into an effort to persuade people to vote NDP. The BC Teachers' Federation spent about $1.5 million, including more than $600,000 sent out to local unions to spend in their communities.
Business groups spent more than $1 million to help the Liberals, with the Independent Contractors and Businesses Assocation, the lobby group for non-union construction firms, spending more than $600,000.
All this spending is on top of the money unions and business contributed directly to the parties. Do the totals, and the Liberals end up with about $9 million in direct and indirect support from business. The NDP got more than $5 million worth of help from unions.
The Liberals have been pointing with grim alarm to the unions' third party efforts. But the Campbell government cleared the way for the spending spree by removed the limits on third party advertising. And it remains the only party not calling for spending limits.
The right to participate directly in election campaigns should be protected. Individuals or groups may want to spend money to raise local issues, or support individual candidates. They may believe that they can spend the money more effectively on their own than by handing cash over to a party. Political parties shouldn't be the only voices heard during a campaign.
But practically, that right should be limited.
We have agreed that there is a real risk that democracy will be undermined if those with the most money dominate the discussion and the battle for votes. That's why we set spending limits for candidates and parties. Allowing unlimited spending by others in support of parties makes those limits meaningless.
And we rightly fear that politicians will feel indebted, or pressured, if their chances of election rest on support from business or union lobby groups. Their influence - by favoring candidates, or withholding their support - can quickly become enormous (Politicians reinforce those fears with their warnings about the corrosive effects of big donations on their opponents.)
The conflict between the right of third parties to participate in campaigns and the need to protect the system has now been resolved by the courts. The BC Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that a law restricting third party spending to $5,000 was an unwarranted limit on free speech. But last year the Supreme Court of Canada found that third party spending limits are acceptable under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Federal law limits their campaign spending to $168,900.
The last provincial campaign made the risks clear. Reasonable spending limits and more effective disclosure rules are needed, and the current problems reinforce the urgency of political finance reform in B.C.
Footnote: I reported in an earlier column that the Liberals' financial disclosure forms reported the transfer of $145,000 to Lorne Mayencourt's campaign, the third highest total among candidates. Mayencourt notes that all that money was raised in the riding during the past four years, sent to the party, and then returned this year.