VICTORIA - It was wounding to find out just how dumb the Liberal big guys think I am.
The Liberals had to report that they raked in a huge amount in corporate donations to pay for their election campaign, a potential political problem.
So they cranked their spin machines up to warp drive and sent out a press release headlined "BC Liberals work to match NDP friends' war chest." The first two-thirds of the release railed about "the outlandish third-party spending from big labour" and the Liberals' plucky underdog efforts to raise money.
And then came the news. The Liberals raised $11.4 million between Jan. 1 and election day, almost $5 million more than they got in 2001. The NDP raised barely half as much, at just under $6 million.
OK, so the Liberals had a lot more money to spend. But there were still all those union campaigns, said party chief Kelly Reichert, and the Liberals worked "tooth-and-nail for donations at the grassroots level."
Maybe, if the grassroots you're talking about are found on the fairways of ritzy country clubs.
About 80 per cent of the Liberals' donations came from corporations and other businesses. Corporate donors paid a bigger share of the bills than they did in 2001.
The NDP were largely supported by individuals, getting less than one-third of their donations from unions.
But, Reichert thundered, the NDP's total doesn't include all the money unions spent on campaigns to defeat the Liberals. More than half the individuals and groups that registered as third party advertisers in this campaign were unions.
It is true that unions, like the BCGEU and BC Teachers' Federation, spent a lot of money ato boost the NDP's prospects. But then business groups spent a lot of money - though probably not as much - boosting the Liberals' prospects. My guess is that the Liberals and their supporters will probably still be the bigger spenders, although it could be close.
And that doesn't even take into account all of your money the Liberals spent on government ads that helped the party. The Liberals secretly went $7 million over the government advertising budget last year, with most of the extra spending going for those "Best Place on Earth" ads, with their striking resemblance to the Liberal campaign ads. If you're looking for unreported political spending, that's a place to start.
The Liberals' press release on their campaign fund-raising may have been an attempt to get out in front of the story, and to spin it in a positive way. The final campaign reports - including the lists of who gave how much - won't be available from Elections BC until Monday.
Instead they looked much like the Wizard of Oz in his palace, clutching at the curtain as Toto tugs on a corner, urging Dorothy and friends to pay no attention to the small man pulling the levers. And in the process the Liberals suggested that they had something they wanted to hide. (And ensured that the donation issue would make the news twice, this week and again when the full reports are out.)
The best lesson to be taken from all this is that the rules around political fund-raising and spending in B.C. need a major overhaul. The NDP and Greens have called for B.C. to ban both corporate and union donations, following the lead of Quebec, Manitoba and the federal government.
And the public is concerned that corporate and union donors expect special treatment, and that big money, not policies or public support, drives politics. (Almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe "people with money have a lot of influence over the government," according to a 2000 survey.)
Meanwhile the Liberals slam union donations; the NDP complains of corporate influence; the public grows more cynical.
Surely all parties agree that it's past time to reform a system that British Columbians, of all political stripes, agree is deeply flawed.
Footnote: Gordon Campbell has said he sees no need to change the current system. It is enough that donations are disclosed, he says, allowing the public to keep decide if big donors have special influence. But government decisions are often invisible, and few citizens will plow through the lists of thousands of donors.