No laughing matter: BC Liberals change tune after foreign media attention on fundraising methods

What a difference one New York Times article can make. In this remote northwest outpost known as British Columbia, sometimes it still takes some attention from national or international media to shake up the political status quo.

For many years, civil society watchdogs and concerned citizens have drawn attention to the dominance of big money in B.C. politics. In this province, unlike much of the rest of Canada, there is no restriction on corporate donations to political parties. “Pay-to-play” politics, or even the perception thereof, is harmful to democracy. When we know that those with more money get to have more influence on government decision-making, people tend to lose faith in their institutions or become apathetic and cynical.

Premier Clark and the “Wild West.”
Photo courtesy of Province of British Columbia

Last year, B.C. journalists revealed that Premier Christy Clark had been receiving an annual stipend from her party, the Liberals, in addition to her salary of $195,000. The Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun and Province, The Tyee, the Victoria Times-Colonist – all the outlets that cover the legislature reported on the stipend and ran strongly-worded op-eds and columns that included substantial criticism of the government in recent years from Kinder Morgan and other oil industry players who stand to benefit from the pipeline’s approval.

But then, on January 13 of this year, the New York Times published a feature story describing B.C. as “The Wild West of Canadian Political Cash.” The article featured interviews with civil society activists contrasting B.C.’s lack of restrictions on political donations with other jurisdictions, and noted that the recent decision by the government to support Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline came after the governing party had received over $700,000 in donations in recent years from Kinder Morgan.

How did Liberal government representatives respond to the Times’ story? Arrogantly. “It’s quite funny to me that the New York Times would focus on British Columbia,” Deputy Premier Rich Coleman told Global News, describing it as “laughable” to criticize B.C. politics given how much money goes into U.S. presidential elections.

Coleman’s response, almost like “let them eat cake” in its blithe dismissal of criticism, was remarkably out-of-touch given the current anger and distrust toward politicians of all stripes. But in the days following Coleman’s initial reaction, something changed. The story kept gathering momentum, and the government’s attempts to laugh it off backfired.

Last week, in an interview with Metro Vancouver, the reporter for the New York Times described what he’d observed in B.C.: “in China or Russia this would just be called ‘corruption’ or ‘nepotism.’ But here, it’s just ‘legal.’ The idea that a Conflict of Interest Commissioner who’s never found anybody in violation of conflict of interest (rules) in all his many years, whose son works in the government he’s meant to rule on – it seems like a Kafkaesque dystopian nightmare of shady politics and conflict of interest.”

Then, last Friday, Premier Clark announced an about-face. She would no longer be receiving the $50,000 stipend from the BC Liberal Party, although she left open the possibility that instead her party would compensate her for additional expenses incurred for attending fundraisers.

Clark argued that the timing of this announcement had nothing to do with the New York Times report or the upcoming provincial election. But, let’s be honest, that didn’t really convince anyone.

What changed the BC Liberals’ minds? It might be that they noticed the opposition NDP was starting to really capitalize on the issue. In a play on the New York Times’ reference to B.C. as the “Wild West,” the NDP put out a graphic showing leader John Horgan in a cowboy hat with the slogan, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Horgan and the NDP have promised to ban big money from provincial politics.

Even with this latest move by the BC Liberals to put the stipend controversy behind them, the issue of big money polluting our democratic politics is here to stay in British Columbia. In May of this year voters will get to decide if they want B.C. to remain the Wild West.