Now that we have finally dumped the cash-soaked BC Liberals, and an NDP/Green alliance is preparing its parliamentary program, we need to engage in a serious discussion about electoral finance reform. I am glad to see the debate beginning to heat up on Twitter and elsewhere and I thought I would add my few cents to the discussion.
First, I am sure most critics of the present system agree that (a) corporate and union donations must be banned; and (b) reform needs to encompass both provincial and municipal politics. Beyond that, differences emerge.
In the discussions I have seen to date there is much concentration on limiting individual contributions; mainly, it seems, as a way to stop the infamous $25,000 lunches that Christy Clark and Gregor Robertson seem to enjoy so much. I believe that to be the wrong focus, preferring instead to concentrate on transparency and equalising opportunity for independents and smaller parties.
Transparency is vital for keeping the system honest and open. But transparency cannot just be for campaigns, it must cover all aspects of party financing between elections too. Vision Vancouver (and no doubt other parties) have received millions of dollars in contributions in the “dark years” between elections when no reporting is required. This must stop Political parties are public entities and their accounts must be public also. In addition, the reporting of contributions should be as close to real-time as technically feasible — no more waiting for the end of the quarter or the end of the year. Monthly statements should be the least we should accept, and with modern accounting software there is no excuse for anything less.
Limits on campaign spending are key to allowing smaller parties and independents to compete. What those limits should be is open for debate (and will presumably be different for municipal and provincial constituencies) but they need to accomplish two goals: creating a more level playing field for all who want to run, and limiting the extraordinary waste of resources that, for example, we see so blatantly in Vancouver elections. I believe that whatever limits are set should cover at least a period of one year up to the election date.
These limits also need to encompass and control so-called third party expenditures. I haven’t thought through a solution to that issue yet, but I want to make sure it is not forgotten.
Finally, let me return to the question of individual donations. Limiting campaign spending and real-time contribution reporting will reduce the gross discrepancies that have occurred in the past. However, I am not at all sure we need to worry about it anyway. Let us say that a campaign limit of $50,000 is set for a mayoral contest. If Joe Billionaire wants to fork out the entire $50,000 why should that bother us providing it becomes immediately known through the transparency rules? I would argue, to the contrary, that the payment would quickly become a campaign issue with that candidate being branded Joe Billionaire’s lapdog and probably costing at least as many votes as her backer’s money may have gained.
Well, that’s a start. As always the devil is in the details and I look forward to a healthy and thorough discussion of this vital topic.