Let’s get big money out of B.C. politics once and for all

The B.C. Liberals have refused to disclose the guest lists at high-priced fundraising dinners. | Photo courtesy of Michael Ignatief

The B.C. Liberals have refused to disclose the guest lists at high-priced fundraising dinners. | Photo courtesy of Michael Ignatief

I thought maybe the Globe and Mail was pulling an April Fools’ joke. On the front page, above the fold, their headline read, ‘Clark promises fundraising transparency.’ Turns out the story is legit, although the new measures the B.C. premier is proposing are underwhelming.

To set the context of that headline, let’s review. Christy Clark has been facing questions for the past week, after a Globe and Mail investigative report revealed the B.C. Liberals have been holding a series of exclusive, high-priced fundraising dinners. For a small fee of five, ten or sometimes even twenty thousand dollars, wealthy British Columbians can enjoy a meal and conversation with the premier. The B.C. Liberals, according to the Globe report, refused to disclose the guest list at these big money events.

If this sort of fundraising model sounds familiar to readers in Vancouver, it’s probably because Premier Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson share a money man in common. Bob Rennie, the ubiquitous “condo king,” is both the head of fundraising for the B.C. Liberals and an important backer of Robertson and Vision Vancouver. Back in 2014, it was revealed Rennie had organized an exclusive lunch fundraiser with Mayor Robertson. The price of admission was a cool $25,000.

This type of fundraising is not illegal in B.C., but it should be. While it falls short of direct bribery, it’s nevertheless a subtle, pernicious form of corruption. The small, exclusive fundraisers are advertised as a way to enjoy coveted access to the premier. This stinks of “pay to play” politics, where corporate interests pay for access and are in turn, indirectly, rewarded with contracts, regulatory changes, or advantageous policies from the government. Without even knowing who’s paying to play, it’s hard for media or the public to scrutinize potential conflicts of interest.

The Globe and Mail report on Clark’s fundraising led to more questions from the legislature press corps, and a call from the provincial opposition NDP for a probe into potential conflicts of interests. NDP MLA David Eby sent a formal letter to B.C.’s conflict-of-interest commissioner Paul Fraser on the matter, and explained his rationale to the media, “The most powerful MLA in the province, the Premier, has access to decision-making power that can be seen to be influenced by large donations from private individuals.”

This scrutiny led to Premier Clark’s promise, as reported by the Globe on April 1: “I’m going to be asking our Chief Electoral Officer to help us change the law in the province so that we can log in the donations in real time. People should be able to see when donations come in to political parties, not just once year.”

This is not the solution we need. Giving the public a chance to watch and follow political corruption “in real time” is a small step forward, but what we really need is to get big money out of politics altogether.

To this end, it’s a positive development that the BC NDP plans to introduce a private member’s bill in the legislature this week calling for a ban on both corporate and union donations to political parties. Just as news of this bill came out, it was reported that NDP leader John Horgan was himself holding a $5,000-a-plate breakfast fundraiser in Toronto. Preaching, but not yet practicing. This illustrates why big money must be legislated out of politics. Clear, strict rules are needed, otherwise the temptation of big money interests is there for even the most progressive-minded politicians.

Campaign and party fundraising rules are not just one more policy issue to be tinkered with; these matters go to the heart of what type of democracy we can have, given the vast inequalities that scar our society.

British Columbia is a province with immense natural and financial wealth. With the real estate bonanza and the staggering flows of domestic and global capital it’s brought into Vancouver and the province as a whole, the rich in B.C. have never been richer. Despite this, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say because of this boom at the top, inequality and poverty are endemic. Wages and benefits have lagged well behind the soaring cost of living.

In a democracy, this uneven economic playing field can be tilted back at least somewhat closer to even, provided the rich are not able to use their wealth to unduly influence or game the political system. Genuine democracy does not exist so long as big money can buy political influence. And that’s no joke.

The fight for democracy and greater social and economic equality go hand-in-hand. Taking big money out of the political equation is a pre-condition for winning the battle for a more just and fair society.