Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Municipal election reform ignores biggest problem

Do big campaign contributions influence politicians' decisions?
The committee that tackled municipal election reform in B.C. decided they don't.
Most British Columbians, polls suggest, disagree.
The committee - three Liberal MLAs and three Union of B.C. Municipalities representatives - delivered its recommendations this week.
There is much positive in the report, including a call for campaign spending limits and badly needed rules on third-party advertising.
But the group, chaired by Community Development Minister Bill Bennett, decided against any limits on campaign contributions. Unions, companies and individuals will still be able to donate millions of dollars to support candidates and slates. The public will still have to vote without knowing who is picking up the bills for candidates. (That is revealed months later.)
The wide-open approach undermines democracy.
Voter participation in municipal elections is dismal. Candidates struggle to be noticed. So financial backing can make a huge difference in their chances of being elected.
At a minimum, the dependence on large donors creates the risk that only candidates who can attract their support - or become part of a slate that can - have a serious chance of electoral success. That limits the ability of ordinary citizens to offer their ideas and energy in a fair election campaign.
And it creates the clear perception that candidates are indebted to their financial backers. If electoral success relies on donations from the union representing municipal workers or a major developer, then those organizations effectively become gatekeepers to the political process. Politicians who displease them face the risk of having their funding vanish the next time around.
The committee decided the donations were not a problem. People and organizations have a right to spend money to influence the outcome of elections, it judged. And donations allow those affected by municipal government, but ineligible to vote - a corporation from any other province or country, for example - to participate in the democratic process.
Disclosure of donations within a few months of the election allow the public to be alert to any favoritism, the committee said. It called for an online municipal donation reporting site to make that easier, a welcome innovation. (The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, while opposing donation limits, proposed requiring all contributions to be disclosed publicly five days before the vote.)
Most provinces disagree with B.C.'s approach. Only two others allow unlimited donations; the others either have limits or allow municipalities to impose them.
The public disagrees too. A Mustel poll earlier this year found three-quarters of British Columbians favoured contribution limits and two-thirds wanted a ban on union and corporate donations.
And the committee received 134 submissions calling for limits on contributions, compared with 31 that wanted to maintain the status quo.
But the issue of political contributions goes beyond municipal elections.
There are no contribution limits in provincial elections. The Greens and New Democrats both support donation limits; the Liberals prefer to allow individuals, corporations and unions to give as much as they choose.
If the committee had decided some rules were needed in municipal campaigns - as the public believes - it would have been hard for the Liberals to keep arguing that provincial campaigns should remain a financing free-for-all.
Most of the changes recommended are positive. Spending limits - if they are set low enough - would reduce the influence of big donors and encourage grassroots campaigns. The committee has called for more effective disclosure of donations in an easily accessible way. Enforcement provisions would be strengthened.
And municipal election terms would change to four years from three. The reduced accountability would, it's hoped, by increased effectiveness as councillors had longer to learn their jobs and address issues before the next election loomed.
All useful changes. But sadly, the failure to move on contribution limits leaves the most significant problem untouched.
Footnote: The government decided against having independent MLA Vicki Huntington or any New Democrats on the committee. And Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele, one of the UBCM reps, is a former Liberal candidate.


Anonymous said...

Campbell's been hand picking committee members to give him the answers he wants since his days as Mayor - sorry PW, no news here.

Leah said...

Well, we know how corrupt the liberal party already is...now we'll be able to see which corporations own and operate them.

Amazing! The corruption in BC politics now rivals that of any South American dictator - and they're proud of it.

DPL said...

The best politicians money can buy, but not the best politicians seems to be the BC Liberal way of doing things

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm being too hard on Campbell about his fondness for relying on committees for doing his dirty work. (4:55 pm above)

Vaughn Palmer writes today about committees gone bad at the Vancouver School Board.

Palmer is commenting on Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland's 94 page report [.PDF] on the board's failure to make cuts to its budget in order to meet funding cuts from the BC Liberals.