Friday, August 26, 2005

Time for controls on third party advertising

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.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Robertson’s ’assassinate Chavez’ talk a symptom

VICTORIA - It’s tempting to make fun of Pat Robertson and his assassination fantasies, to write him off as a nutty novelty act on the American political-religious scene.
Robertson made the news again with his proposal - on his popular television show - that the U.S. should just go ahead and kill Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The democratically elected Chavez is a bad guy, Robertson said, and America needs Venezuela’s oil. Invasions cost too much, so George Bush should just send some folks off to kill Chavez.
Robertson recanted in an elaborate two-step. First he denied saying Chavez should be assassinated, a doomed effort since people could watch the videotape of him saying just that. Then Robertson acknowledged calling for the killing, and said he was wrong. He was just frustrated that the U.S. wasn’t taking the Chavez threat seriously, Robertson said, accusing Chavez of a brace of offences, including making common cause with Carlos the Jackal, a surprise since the terrorist has been a French prison for a decade.
It’s the latest in a long line of weird and creepy statements from Robertson, who is apparently in personal touch with his own cranky God. He has a long list of enemies, from liberals to pro-lifers to Supreme Court justices who are more dangerous to America than “a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings."
Gays and their friends are on God’s hit list, Robertson says. When Disney World wouldn’t cancel a Gay Pride Month, he predicted some serious smiting. "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes. It'll bring about terrorist bombs. It'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor," he told his TV audience.
It all sounds looney, in a hateful kind of way, the rantings you would expect from a disgruntled lonely guy down in the local coffee shop.
But about 860,000 Americans tune in each day to The 700 Club, Robertson’s flagship TV show, more than CNN attracts in prime time. Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network has more than 1,000 employees, and its news talk shows get the top politicians in Washington as regular guests. (The 700 Club is broadcast in Canada on the Miracle Channel.)
And despite Robertson’s nutty comments, he has political influence as a leader of the evangelical right. George Bush meets with Robertson, who takes credit for a major push to help Bush in both his election wins.
Robertson’s influence, some contend, is fading. But the White House’s cautious reaction to the ‘lets-kill-Chavez’ comments show an eagerness to keep him and his supporters on good terms. A State Department spokesman said the comments were "inappropriate," but didn’t say they were wrong, or stupid, or unhelpful. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield said the Pentagon doesn’t do assassinations, but he wouldn’t criticize the comments. "He's a private citizen,” Rumsfield said.”Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time."
But most of those private citizens don’t have access to the president, or a national TV audience.
It’s all helpful to Chavez, who has already claimed the U.S. wants him dead because of his leftist policies and alliance with Fidel Castro.
And in a small way, it’s probably unhelpful to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. Many Canadians worry about the influence of social conservatives and the religious right on the party. This affair shows how large that influence has become in the U.S.
But mostly it’s another reminder of how dangerous people can be when they believe they have a direct and certain line to God. Osama Bin Laden finds justification for blowing up civilians, something the Koran forbids. Robertson finds grounds for killing leaders of other countries. Their certainty that they are right makes them dangerous.
Faith is a wonderful and powerful thing. It naturally shapes the way people live their lives.
But when it’s used to justify compelling others to live the same way, it becomes a menace, as Robertson has again shown.
Footnote: Robertson’s retreat was half-hearted. OK, he says, it was wrong to advocate assassination. But he went on to note German protestants found it acceptable to try and kill Hitler. “There are many who disagree with my comments, and I respect their opinions,” Robertson concluded. “There are others who think that stopping a dictator is the appropriate course of action.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Ottawa too slow to raise pressure on softwood

VICTORIA - B.C.'s forest industry has a right to be steamed at the way our governments have handled the softwood dispute.
The federal government, and even the province, haven't done enough for the industry and the communities that depend on it. And both have been slow to acknowledge the need to pressure the U.S.
There's no easy solutions. But it's been clear for a year that Canada's approach to the dispute - supported by the B.C. government - has not been working. Only now has federal Trade Minister Jim Peterson said Ottawa might change tactics and retaliate. Prime Minister Paul Martin may even call George Bush to talk about the issue.
Ottawa was reacting to the U.S. announcement that it will simply ignore what was supposed to be the definitive NAFTA ruling on the dispute. The NAFTA panel dismissed the Americans' case, and said the 21-per-cent duty should be lifted, and the $5 billion already collected returned to Canadian companies.
Get lost, the U.S. government said. We don't like the decision, so we're going to ignore it. What are you going to about it?
That's been the question for some time now. Resolving the dispute through legal appeals under NAFTA or the World Trade Organization has looked increasingly unlikely. The Americans are willing to ignore the judgments.
That leaves a negotiated settlement.
But a deal reached now would be bad for Canada, which has no bargaining power. For three years the U.S. government has collected the duties with no real response from Canada, politically or economically. Both the B.C. and federal governments rejected trade retaliation. Legal efforts have failed. So have lobbying campaigns, and attempts to involve U.S. consumers, who are paying more for homes because of the duties.
The Americans can leave the duties in place indefinitely without fear. Any deal would be on their terms.
Unless Canada and B.C. are able to increase the pressure on the U.S., politically and economically.
Trade wars are risky and destructive. Canada exports about $300 billion worth of goods and services a year to the U.S. American companies only sell about $200 billion into Canada. An escalating trade battle would be much more damaging here.
And retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports will cost consumers, who will pay more for the affected goods.
But there's no realistic alternative.
The U.S. government has been tough on softwood because the American lumber producers are effective lobbyists with political muscle.
Canada has to impose duties that encourage other U.S. industries with political clout to demand Washington find a solution. The U.S. wine industry is already struggling; a 20-per-cent duty on exports to Canada would see them pushing for a quick end to the trade dispute. (Though it may also see B.C. wines facing more barriers to U.S. markets in retaliation.)
The federal government has been slow to take any action, and B.C. has been quiescent and equally reluctant to act. Former forests minister Mike de Jong said the government might tell the Liquor Distribution Branch to quit buying California wine, a $60-million gesture. Nothing happened.
Ottawa has also been slow to provide aid for affected workers and communities, or for companies facing both reduced cash flow and the need for capital investment to increase their efficiency.
Now, three years after the dispute began, the Ontario government has succeeded in getting Ottawa's attention where B.C. failed. The federal government is considering an industry aid program, after Ontario announced its own plan and called for a similar federal effort.
The aid program is likely too late for Interior companies, which have already invested to increase their efficiency, though it may help Coastal operators. But it also raises new risks. Provincial incentives in Ontario, and not in B.C., could put pulp mills in that province, for example, first in line for investment.
But aid plans aren't the answer. A more effective push to resolve the dispute holds the best hope for a real solution.
Footnote: Gordon Campbell will get a few minutes to raise the softwood issue when he meets U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney next month at a Calgary fundraising dinner for the Fraser Institute, a rightish policy centre. (You can sit with the premier for a $10,000 donation to the institute.) Cheney is also touring Alberta's oilsands.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Weirdness and worry in the political finance reports

VICTORIA - First notes from the Elections BC reports on B.C.'s most expensive political campaign ever. (With a more thoughtful overview to come.)
- The buzz that the Liberals were spending huge amounts to try and save key candidates like former labour minister Graham Bruce turns out to be entirely accurate. The finance reports show that the Liberals sent $189,000 into his Cowichan riding in an unsuccessful effort to hold the seat. Only Gordon Campbell, with $157,000, Lorne Mayencourt, with $145,000, and Virgina Greene came close to getting such a big chunk of cash from the party. Greene and Bruce lost despite the money, but the big spending may have made the difference in Mayencourt's narrow win. (There are spending limits for candidates, but they only cover the 28 days of the campaign. It's wide open in the months before, when the lucky candidates got much of the money.)
- The reports also confirm that the Liberals had written off seats in southeastern B.C. Poor Wendy McMahon got just $21,000 to help fight her losing battle, while Blair Suffredine got $27,000. The average across all 79 ridings was $76,000.
- The First Dollar Alliance Society, based in Campbell River, registered as a third-party campaigner, raising $27,250 to promote the Liberals and local candidate Rod Visser. The biggest donor? Why the government of B.C., which contributed $17,500. But it's not like it looks, said Leanne Brunt. That money was for a conference of women from resource communities. The money spent on the pro-Liberal campaign came almost entirely from corporate donors. It still leaves the Alliance's grassroots claims looking a little tattered.
- The money trails behind the third party campaigns are twisting and tangled. Which side, for example, would you say the Comox Valley Association for Good Government is on? Liberal, as it turns out, and more than one-third of the $15,000 it raised to support Stan Hagen came from Great Canadian Railtours, a good Liberal donor with not much to do with the Comox Valley. Great Canadian gave another $57,000 directly to the Liberal campaign.
And then there's the Council of Senior Citizens' Organizations of BC, which raised $86,000 to oppose the Liberals. But dig in to the documents and you find $71,000 of that came from various union groups, including $45,000 from the BC Federation of Labour. That's on top of the BC Fed's own $114,000 third party campaign and the $412,000 it donated to the NDP.
- Unions spent more than $3 million on third party campaigns, a large amount but less than the Liberals had predicted during the campaign (and as recently as last week when they quoted a figure of $10 million in a press release).
- Cline Mining, the small corporation at the centre of a big B.C.-Montana fight over a planned coal mine near the U.S. border., came through for the Liberals with a $15,000 donation. Cline's right to develop the mine has been championed by the government, but it's still a generous gift from a company that lost almost $400,000 last year.
- It was once again not easy being Green. The party manage to raise $90,000, almost all from individual donations. It's a hopelessly small amount to fund a provincial campaign. The Green's biggest budget expense - brochures - cost less than the $15,000 victory celebration party in Gordon Campbell's riding.
- The Greens were able to get their financial reports in by the deadline, but Adriane Carr had to get an extension for filing her candidates' financial statements. So did 11 NDP candidates, including five who were elected - Ronin Austin, Mike Farnworth, Sue Hammell, Harry Lali and Diane Thorne.
- The most efficient campaigner among the leaders filing returns was Marc Emery, who reported campaign expenses of $100 and got 374 votes, for a cost of 27 cents for vote won. Carole James, who spent $55,000 and got 16,081 votes spent $3.40 per vote. Campbell's $177,000 in spending and lower vote total meant he had to spend more than $14 per vote.
Footnote: The pressure for political finance reform is mounting. The NDP and Greens already support a ban on union and corporate donations, and the New Democrats are now open to better controls on third party spending. The Liberals stand alone in defending the status quo.