electoral reform

BC Legislature with fountain

Whatever Voting Systems Wins, BC Needs to Make Politicians More Accountable

As long as parties tightly control elected members, democracy is thwarted.

As you consider how to vote in British Columbia’s electoral reform referendum, don’t assume that either keeping the way we elect politicians in B.C., or changing it, will guarantee a more responsive government. Dec. 1, 2018, the day after ballots are due, should be the beginning of a wider conversation about how to make this province more democratic.

It starts with politicians being truly accountable to their constituents.

What most people are yearning for is not merely a fairer distribution of seats in our legislature. People want to feel that whoever they elect will stand up for them and defend their interests. Currently, my elected representative is supposed to act for me and my neighbours as laws are debated, since we can’t all show up every day in Ottawa or Victoria or at city hall to give a thumbs up or down to important decisions.

But as we all know, that seldom happens. Party interests generally override constituents’ interests, and party policy is largely decided by the party leader and his or her inner circle.

Between elections, citizens are left out of this process and subjected to partisan, “party first” rhetoric by elected leaders. While vigorous debate is part of a healthy democracy, the finger-pointing, personal attacks and “my team good, your team bad” nature of our politics is alienating voters.

Simply reshuffling the chairs won’t fix the problem if we leave in place numerous ways party leaders control their MLAs. These include party fundraising rules, the absence of independent staff on legislative committees, impossible recall thresholds, and the party leader’s role in nomination races. The most powerful weapon party leaders wield is called whipping.

It is extremely rare in this province for MLAs to vote independently from their party. That’s because they face punishment if they do. As former investigative journalist Sean Holman pointed out in his must-see documentary “Whipped,” the secretive party-discipline rules that “whip” votes along party lines have transformed Canadian politicians into “trained seals” following their leader.

One former MLA told me how his party changed his password to deny him access to the internal party member and donor database in the lead-up to an election as punishment for not towing the party line.

The controversy surrounding the recent leaked NDP “gag order” that would prevent NDP caucus members “from publicly criticizing the decisions of Premier John Horgan’s government” just codifies decades-old informal rules for most parties. The Green party claims not to whip votes, but the voting records of their three-person caucus are virtually identical. We’ll see if their “no-whipping” policy survives an expanded Green party caucus.

Whipping insures legislators stick within their parties rather than work across the aisle with other members to solve problems jointly. Might PR systems increase the likelihood of minority governments, forcing parties to work together? Yes. However, all proportional systems proposed in B.C.’s referendum have to top up the number of seats for parties under-represented in the direct vote. How these top-up seats are allocated has a dramatic impact on accountability. The top-up options will be determined by a legislative committee if the referendum passes.

Even if the legislative committee decides not to use party derived “closed” lists, parties can still influence the makeup of top-up lists. As a result, the dictator-like power our Westminster-system gives party leaders over MLAs will persist.

By policing internal challenges to their power, political parties paradoxically erode their authority. When pollsters ask Canadians to rank how much they trust various institutions — governments, industries, professions, charities, non-profits, religious organizations, universities, news organizations — political parties always come out at the bottom of the list.

Globally, people generally trust actual people more than institutions. Polls show young people trust younger people, older trust older, ethnic voters trust ethnic representatives. These trends hold in British Columbia.

It raises a question (perhaps to be decided by some future referendum): If we want to adjust seat counts to ensure they are proportional, perhaps we should recalculate around traits people actually care about — age, gender and ethnicity — not political party. After the Vancouver election resulted in all Asian candidates being defeated despite 45 per cent of the population being Asian, imagine a legislature that is proportionalized to reflect the real ratios of Asians, First Nations or women.

In the meantime, here are some other ways to change B.C.’s legislative process to make politicians more accountable to the people who elected them:

  • Develop new rules to allow MLAs more free votes and limit whipping;
  • Strengthen the role of constituency associations in choosing candidates and reduce the power of parties and their leaders to exclude candidates;
  • Democratize power of MLAs to choose their caucus chairs;
  • Empower caucus to review and remove the party leader, and elect interim leader;
  • Codify rules for how MLAs can be expelled from and re-admitted to caucus;
  • Increase the signature requirements on candidate’s applications — and require candidates to personally witness each signature — in order to force candidates to demonstrate wider local support before election; and
  • Enhance resources and financial support for all MLAs, particularly independent MLAs.

Constituents’ ability to recall an unaccountable MLA must also be strengthened. While recalling an MLA should be a difficult task, as a last resort it must be attainable by co-ordinated volunteer effort. Recent reforms to improve disclosure and transparency requirements and ban union and corporate money in recall campaigns are advances. However, the $5,000 third party spending limit and the 60-day timeline make it a mountain too high.

This piece isn’t meant to cool anyone’s desire to cast a vote in the current referendum. Whichever choice wins, however, there is still a lot of work required to get the accountable MLAs and accountable government we need and deserve.

Christy Clark

Dirty donation déjà vu

I love all kinds of movies, but my hands-down favourites are about underdogs. Any movie where the little guy takes on a big, bad villain and wins gets a double thumbs up from me.

Most classic Westerns fit the bill: picture hapless frontier folk facing down greedy, well-armed bandits. While B.C. has recently been dubbed the “Wild West” of political cash, we locals have contended with unsavory shenanigans since at least 2001.

You see, although Dogwood “officially” launched our Ban Big Money campaign last spring, we’ve been trying to shine sunlight on B.C.’s sleazy political donations for more than a decade.

Once Upon A Time In The West

Back in 2006 after a comprehensive, line by-line review of BC Liberals’ 2001 and 2005 annual donation disclosure, Dogwood filed a complaint with Elections BC documenting how the BC Liberals systematically underreported donations in both 2001 and 2005.

Our investigation found the following:

  • Almost half a million dollars in donations ( >500 inaccuracies) the BC Liberal party failed to properly report in its 2001 financial disclosure as required by law.
  • Those mistakes amounted to almost a third of the $1.6 million donated directly to Liberal candidates in that election.
  • The BC Liberals hadn’t properly disclosed approximately six per cent of the party’s donations in 2001. The largest inaccuracies involved donations to candidates who later became cabinet ministers.
  • The BC Liberals’ 2005 financial report revealed similar systemic reporting mistakes.
  • Random spot checks of the NDP’s 2001 and 2005 filings did not reveal similar systemic reporting mistakes.

Elections BC responded to our complaint just as they did with recent allegations of illegal donations: by launching a comprehensive review of all parties’ donation reports.

The Searchers

The results were mixed. Elections BC confirmed the BC Liberals had violated the law in 2001, however, they chose not to impose a penalty. Elections BC stated in their May 16, 2006 letter to Dogwood:

“[We] concur that the [BC Liberal] party did not consistently report correct amounts for combined contributions… to the party and its candidates in the 2001 General Election … It was a systemic error that resulted in some contributions to some candidates not being included in the party’s combined report…”

But some good did come of it. Dogwood’s 2006 complaint had a big role in making sure all party donations are now available online in a searchable database: the Financial Reports and Political Contributions System.

Now with public pressure mounting, the BC Liberals have introduced legislation that would mandate “real time” disclosure of donations (instead of the current once-a-year disclosure). But their supposed efforts to increase transparency are too little, too late.

A Fistful of Dollars

Transparency alone wasn’t enough to rein in the sleaze in 2006, nor will it be in 2017. The reason British Columbia remains the Wild West is because the underlying rules are outdated or non-existent. While many provinces — and the federal government — have brought in tough new reforms, British Columbia laws have stagnated.

With lax enforcement of what few rules there are, the sleaze scale has increased dramatically: Last year donations over $100 accounted for $11.7 million of the BC Liberal party’s $12.15 million total. That included $1.7 million from just 11 top donors in 2016.

Right now in B.C. the picture is clear: it’s powerful corporations, lobbyists and high net worth individuals who are running the show.

But to double down on a cliché, there might be a new sheriff in town.

High Noon

This month Kathy Tomlinson reported in the Globe & Mail that a number of lobbyists made individual donations to the BC Liberals, then took reimbursements from corporations. That would break one of the few laws we do have, designed to stop people from concealing the true source of donations.

Lobbyists like Mark Jiles (whose clients include the B.C. Salmon Farmers’ Association) and Byng Giraud, (a lobbyist for Woodfibre LNG, an Indonesian firm hoping to build a gas plant near Squamish) admitted they paid for tables at fundraisers on personal credit cards, then billed the same amount back to clients.

That may just be the tip of the iceberg. Watchdog group Integrity BC has identified 727 suspicious donations to the BC Liberals, totalling more than $1.5 million. Those files have now been handed to the RCMP, which is taking over the investigation from Elections BC.

Dogwood has asked police to investigate donations by Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson, as well as six other lobbyists and staff connected to the controversial Trans Mountain expansion.

There are also allegations of irregularities related to $150,203 that accounting firm KPMG donated to the BC Liberals between 2005 to 2010. David McShane and Eric Watt are named in the Elections B.C. database as the KPMG executives who signed the cheques. But McShane died in 2004.

Watt, who acted as Premier Christy Clark’s financial agent in her 2011 leadership campaign, retired from KPMG in 2012. In 2014 the BC Liberal cabinet named him to the Knowledge Network board. KPMG also billed the provincial government $2,692,289 through April last year for accounting services.

With more such revelations appearing every day, public anger is approaching a tipping point.

True Grit

Back in 2006 we had to rely on mainstream outlets to publicize the issue, which they didn’t. Now Dogwood has enough supporters that the circulation of our e-mails, videos, blog posts and podcasts is starting to rival some media organizations.

Reporters are taking an interest, too. The New York Times, Globe & Mail, National Post, National Observer, CBC, Global, CTV, CKNW, Tyee, Metro and Vancouver Sun have all featured the current scandal in their headlines.

We haven’t won yet, but momentum is on our side.

Eventually the only option will be to ban big money from politics once and for all. When that happens, it will not be because political parties suddenly had an epiphany, but rather because people like you, and organizations like Dogwood and Integrity BC, organized a focused opposition demanding change.

Dogwood’s goal is simple: ensure whichever party forms government in May does so on a promise to fundamentally reform B.C.’s archaic political financing and access to government laws. With your help and some hard work, we know we can win.

If you want to put the big, powerful, arrogant, well-connected donors in their place, it’s going to take grit and determination. British Columbians like you and me are going to have to be the underdogs who force the issue and mobilize against any half measures that may be offered to distract us. We have to be the heroes of this story.

It will be a struggle, but we’re up for the challenge and we know you are too.

Christy Clark

Corporate cash addiction corrodes B.C. politics

Would you pay $20,000 to eat rubbery chicken, drink a couple glasses of wine, shake some hands and listen to boring political speeches?

No, probably not.

How about $5,000 or $10,000 a table? Or $1,000, $1,500 or $2,500 a plate?

Still no?

Me neither. But CEOs of British Columbia’s biggest corporations routinely hand over big cheques to hobnob with Christy Clark and her cabinet at BC Liberal party fundraisers. Or more recently, with John Horgan and the BC NDP.

If this is not legalized bribery, I don’t know what is. Certainly the $2,500, $10,000 or even $20,000 price of entry isn’t paying for the food and drink. So what’s it for?

The corrosive impact of money on politics has been in the news a lot lately. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau is on the defensive for allegedly violating his own rules at a $1,500-a-ticket private fundraiser attended by a number of Chinese billionaires seeking access and favours from Trudeau’s government.

One wealthy attendee, Zhang Bin, has strong ties to the Communist Party in China and reportedly donated $1 million to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation soon after the exclusive event. Another tycoon in attendance, Shenglin Xian, received final approval soon afterward to open a bank in Canada. The Liberal Party maintains that government business is not discussed at these fundraisers.

Nonetheless, Federal Finance Minister Bill Moreau and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould have also garnered headlines and negative editorials across the country for participating in these cash-for-access events. So have many of Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario cabinet ministers.

Down south, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders built their campaigns around slamming the role big donors play in driving policy in Washington D.C. Yet here in British Columbia – the wild west of political fundraising – Christy Clark’s BC Liberals are raking in unprecedented amounts of political money from dozens of corporations (foreign and domestic) with businesses regulated by her government, including from oilminingcoalLNG and real estate sectors. Pay-for-access dinners happen frequently in British Columbia, generally without a peep from the press.

John Horgan’s NDP slipped into the cesspool last week when his laudatory announcement to end the grizzly bear trophy hunt was hijacked by news that he was hosting a $10,000 VIP fundraiser with undisclosed “resource industry leaders” later that night.

While fracking, mining and timber companies can’t win any immediate concessions by wining and dining opposition leader John Horgan, perhaps they are just hedging their bets in case he forms government after the May election. It is worth noting corporations also dramatically increased donations to the NDP immediately before the 2013 election – when the NDP was widely predicted to win.

For someone like me who believes in transparency, integrity and public service, it’s all pretty depressing.

But the news is not all bad. In September, the Green Party of BC announced that, effective immediately, they would voluntarily impose a ban on donations of any kind from corporations and unions.

It was an important step that raised the ethical bar higher for all other political parties in our magnificent province. Unfortunately, they are the only party so far to have mustered the courage for bold change.

Critics of the Green Party have dismissed their voluntary ban as a stunt, citing the dearth of union and corporate donations the party receives. But in 2015, the Green Party received $10,549 (just under 3 per cent of their total donations) from unions and corporations, and these donations totaled $23,568 (~ seven per cent of the party’s income) in 2014. These totals, while small, are not insignificant for a small party.

So while it’s certainly easier for the Green Party to take a principled stand, other opposition parties wouldn’t be crippled by following the Green Party’s lead.  While the Libs got an astonishing $5,308,788 (53.19 per cent of total donations) from non-voting corporate and union donors in 2015, the NDP raised only a tiny fraction of that – $520,156 (17 per cent of their total).

Bernie Sanders showed us small donors will flock to progressive leaders who take a strong ethical stand against crony capitalism. Bernie’s campaign raised over $200,000,000 (the equivalent of almost one dollar from every eligible voter in the U.S). Using a similar formula, the BC NDP could raise at least $3,100,000 from B.C. voters, more than offsetting the corporate and union money they currently collect.

The BC Green Party reportedly raised $50,000 from individual donors after their voluntary ban on corporate money. In other words, in a few days the Greens raised more than four times the amount corporations gave them last year and double the sum raised in 2014.

The BC Conservative Party would face an even smaller shortfall, only having to backfill $4,250 (7.85 per cent of total income) if they refused to accept corporate or union money.

To give them credit, the BC NDP has tabled a private member’s bill five different times that would ban non-voters from making political donations and cap individual donations. If elected, leader John Horgan promises to clean up political fundraising for good. But in the meantime, he continues to solicit union and corporate money, arguing he can’t “unilaterally disarm” in the face of Christy Clark’s fundraising blitzkrieg.

Unfortunately, the NDP seems to be ignoring the old Albert Einstein quote about the definition of insanity – doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.

Clearly the BC NDP approach is insane by Einstein’s definition. As they have almost every year for decades, the NDP is exponentially losing the arms race to Premier Clark’s money machine, and are unlikely to catch up by election time. Trying to compete with the BC Liberals when you are being out-fundraised ten to one is a mug’s game. Yet the BC NDP refuse to change course.

Polling commissioned by Dogwood and conducted by Insights West shows an overwhelming majority of supporters from both the BC Liberals (81 per cent) and the BC NDP (91 per cent) want an end to corporate, union and out of province donations before the next election. So the challenge to the BC NDP is: will they listen?

If not, British Columbians need a game plan for after the vote in May – because without a clear alternative to Christy Clark’s corporate cronyism, there’s a strong likelihood the BC Liberals will use their massive monetary advantage to grind out another win.

Join thousands of other British Columbians who are fed up with business-as-usual politics by signing your name to Dogwood’s Ban Big Money campaign today. Together, we can hold all politicians to account for the destructive role money is playing in our political system – before, during and after the 2017 election.