By election day on Nov. 19, several million dollars will have flowed through the campaign coffers of Vancouver’s mayoral and council candidates. But the public won’t know an exact total, or who footed the bill, until well into 2012.
Vancouver voters often take it for granted that big campaign cheque-writers pull the strings in council meetings.
“You can’t get into office [in this city] unless you have big money behind you,” said Eric Hamilton-Smith, an Occupy Vancouver activist who studied politics at Simon Fraser University.
In an effort to change that, there have been repeated demands for fundamental election reforms over the years.
This year, concerns over campaign spending led the Occupy Vancouver movement to issue a challenge to candidates to reveal their donors on the eve of the election. And several independent candidates adopted voluntary election spending limits, making the issue a key plank in their campaigns.
The big donors
More than $5 million was spent by candidates for Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) alone in the November 2008 election. The biggest donors were real estate developers, corporations, and unions, according to an analysis of public records published by the Vancouver Sun in late April 2009.
The city charter places no limits on the total amount a party can spend on a campaign, and an individual can write as big a cheque as they wish.
All donations to political parties and individuals must be submitted to the city clerk within 120 days after voting ends. The reports, submitted on paper, become public records retained for seven years. Thus, critics base their objections on data from the 2008 election.
The perception that donors with business before the city receive favourable treatment moved Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver, and their mayoral candidate Randy Helten, to refuse corporate donations.
“Those in power have to reverse-engineer their decisions to satisfy their financial supporters,” he said. “What we would like to see is a separation of the regulated and the regulators, so that council can really work in the public interest.”
Despite their belief that these donations drive political decision-making in Vancouver, none of the campaign finance critics interviewed for this story were able to offer up evidence of a single vote that was swayed by a particular donation.
Notably, however, the city charter doesn’t require abstaining when conflicts of interest due to campaign donations arise.
Current Vision councillor and candidate Geoff Meggs reflected on the issue in a recent interview with the Mainlander website.
“I think [developers] want access, and a relationship with councillors, absolutely,” he was quoted as saying. “They want to make sure that they get a fair hearing, although there’s not an expectation, in my experience, that they will necessarily get what they want in a particular project.”
Limiting on campaign money
This may be the last municipal election without restrictions on financing. The province has drawn up plans to standardize the rules governing elections in all of the B.C. municipalities and to set caps on spending.
The public strongly supports rewriting the municipal election financing rules.[pullquote]There’s definitely people saying we should know who’s financing our political parties before we make our decision.[/pullquote]More than three-quarters of British Columbia voters surveyed by political scientist Kennedy Stewart, the current MLA for Burnaby-Douglas, want spending limits placed on local government elections. This includes caps on donations by any one person and bans on corporate gifts, union donations, and funds that come from people outside the province.
Last year, Mayor Gregor Robertson and the Vision-majority council wrote to the provincial task force on local government elections reform asking for similar restrictions.
Tasked with crafting province-wide changes to municipal elections laws, the group weighed the Vancouver council’s opinion along with nearly 1,000 other submissions from cities, organizations, and individuals. Campaign finance was one of the top concerns in the flood of feedback.
The task force issued a set of 31 recommendations for a proposed Local Government Elections Act in 2010. But the measure foundered in Victoria, and the changes have been postponed until 2014.
“The intent was to get this done before these  elections,” said Clayton Whitman, a Canadian election law expert who writes on the topic at democracylawblog.ca. “Then the HST hit and basically blew a year-long hole in BC politics. Elections BC couldn’t have done anything if you had wanted them [to], really.”
The task force debated putting pre-election reporting into the bill, but in the end only recommended moving the deadline to 90 days post-election, standardizing the reports, and posting them online in a single database managed by Elections BC.
Many people and organizations had backed pre-election disclosure in their letters to the task force, but the issue didn’t raise enough concern to justify placing big bookkeeping burdens on smaller campaigns or to risk making too many changes at once, according to the report.
“There’s definitely people saying we should know who’s financing our political parties before we make our decision,” said Whitman. “But I think that is more of a long shot in terms of what you’ll see in any municipal government election reform.”
Not content to wait for the new act, the general assembly of the Occupy Vancouver movement recently challenged all Vancouver council and mayoral candidates to disclose their 2011 donations by November 18, or “face the music on Election Day.”
The challenge also expressed support for limiting overall spending, placing caps on what a single donor can give, and banning donations from outside of B.C. and from corporations and unions.
Occupy Vancouver organizer Eric Hamilton-Smith said all independent candidates, the Green Party of Vancouver, and NSV responded. COPE Councilor and candidate Ellen Woodsworth attempted to assemble a disclosure, but missed the deadline.
“The only two parties completely defiant were NPA and Vision,” said Hamilton-Smith. “We’ve got a direct action planned today to call them out on the fact that they’ve been bought by corporations.”
“Until you can find a way to legislate the removal of money from politics,” said Hamilton-Smith, “we’ll never know whether a city can be run with the interests of its people in mind as opposed to the big business that’s financing their campaigns.”
Fact file: Municipal election changes set for 2014
Premier Gordon Campbell in 2009 announced a new effort to modernize and harmonize the municipal elections laws across British Columbia. The province formed a task force composed of the president and two delegates of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, two MLAs, and the Minister of Community and Rural Development, Bill Bennett.
The group collected data and opinions over several months. Their final report, issued late May 2010, made 31 recommendations drawn from the thousands of opinions submitted by B.C. municipalities, organizations, academics and citizens. Although finished on time, more than a year before the 2011 campaign season, the recommendations never made it into a legislative bill.
Whistler-based election law expert Clayton Whitman predicts that a bill incorporating the reforms will be introduced early in 2012, in time to pass a law covering the 2014 municipal elections.
“I think there’s a broad consensus that something should, and is going to, be done,” he said. “They spent a lot of money and time on that report and there’s broad agreement on most of the parts of the report, but it’s a long and drawn out process.”
Most of the following recommendations received widespread support and will raise few objections in the legislature:
- Registration of third-party advertisers and disclosure of their spending.
All ads will state who paid for it to be published.
- A separate act to set rules for campaign finance in local elections.
- A new Elections B.C.-run database of campaign finance disclosures,
to be published online 90 days after the election.
- A ban on anonymous contributions, and caps on overall spending by
candidates, elector organizations, and third-party advertisers.
- Granting Elections BC the power to manage and enforce campaign finance rules in local elections.
Several proposed reforms were considered and rejected by the task force:
- Limits on the size of individual or corporate campaign contributions.
- Public financing of local elections.
- Pre-election disclosure of campaign donors
- Reinstating any form of corporate or business votes in local elections.