Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


March 14, 2016

Debate: Bill 17, the local elections campaign financing expense limits act.

S. Simpson: I’m pleased to take my place to join the debate on Bill 17, the local elections campaign financing expense limits act.

Essentially, what this piece of legislation does is put limits on campaign expenses for candidates at the local level. The amounts of the expense limits — there’s some reference to those — are all to come by regulation at a later time. Sometimes with these things…. We’ll just have to see what the regulatory regime looks like. The devil is in the details with regulations, and we’ll have to see what those regulations look like and how, in fact, those expense limits are reflected.

Essentially, the notion of putting in place expense limits is a good thing. It’s something that this side has spoken to on numerous occasions, something that we believe is necessary to be put in place at the local level. It is an exercise at the federal level, at the provincial level, and it certainly should be put in place at the local level. But the challenge with Bill 17 is that it truly is half a loaf, if you really want to look at it, because while it speaks to the expense side, it does not speak to contributions in any way, shape or form.

The previous speaker talked about the level of consultation that went on around this piece of legislation, about the amount of consultation that went on, and there has been a lot of talk about this for many, many years. There was a push that…. We had hoped that these things would have been put in place before the last local election. That didn’t occur, but it’s here now.

In all that consultation, we know that the government side made a conscious decision to exclude the contributions discussion. The special committee, in their report in June of 2015, made the following statement, and it’s because of decisions the government made about the mandate of that committee.

What the committee said is:

“Many participants in the public consultation process raised other issues outside the mandate of this committee, including contribution limits and potential conflicts of interest — some advocating a ban on corporate and union donations — the institution of a ward system; disclosure requirements; and the role of Elections B.C. However, the committee recognized that these other local elections issues are beyond its mandate.”

The previous member was talking about the levels and the breadth of consultation. Consultation is a good thing, but it really becomes effective if you actually allow those voices to be heard in the report. But when the government shuts the mandate, narrows the mandate and doesn’t allow contribution discussions and other matters to be discussed, all of a sudden, you have the half a loaf. You have a report that’s incomplete, and you have a piece of legislation that doesn’t deal with all of the critical issues around how money plays a role in local elections.

Expense limits are important. They’re important because they do help to balance the playing field. What we know, and it should be true at every level of government, is that to the greatest degree possible, you want elections to be about ideas. You want elections to be about people being able to deliver their message about what they believe, what their values are, what their experience and their expertise is when they’re seeking elected office. You want to make sure that people have enough money, that they have the ability to expend a reasonable amount of money in order to deliver that message and allow voters to hear that.

What you don’t want is so much money that it becomes overwhelming. That is an issue. In my city, in Vancouver, in the last municipal election, between the two major parties, Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association…. They spent somewhere between $6 million to $7 million between them on the election in Vancouver. That’s an overwhelming amount of money. It’s way more money than should be allowed to be spent in Vancouver or in any other jurisdiction in a local election.

It does a couple of things. One is that it certainly separates both those political organizations from everybody else in terms of their voice, because it’s an at-large system, and it makes it almost impossible for independents to have any possibility of being heard at all. And $6 million or $7 million in a local election — incredible amounts of money.

You do want to take that money out, you do want to make it about ideas, and you do want expense limits that in fact ensure that people have the money, that political organizations or individual candidates have enough ability to spend to be heard. But contributions are equally critical in levelling that playing field and having balance.

It’s particularly important, in many ways, in local elections. You often hear critiques about how the development industry supports these candidates, and they’re just about helping their friends in the development community, or the local public sector workers support these candidates, and it’s all about them supporting the people who are their employees.

Both of these and other issues raise a question in the minds of voters about whose interests are being dealt with here. That’s a legitimate question, and that becomes a question when you allow contributions to be basically wide open.

It creates for people the belief that things are unfair, that they are intrinsically unfair and that the unfairness is in fact structured into the system.

That’s one of the reasons that, on this side, we have consistently said that it’s time to end that and that the best way to do that is to adopt the model that has been adopted by the federal government — to end corporate and union donations, to say that individuals will be the only people who will be allowed to make a contribution and that there will be limits on how much those contributions are.

If we do that, then we take away all of that question about whether anybody is buying influence. Whether it’s real or perceived, it is not healthy for our democracy to have people believe that.

We have said, as we say for this place and provincially, we should end union and corporate donations entirely and move forward with a system where individuals, in fact, finance political parties and finance candidates.

You have a situation here, with Bill 17, where the government chose to ignore that issue of contributions and chose to allow the situation that continues today to be able to move on. Now, not only have we heard it in this place, but we’ve heard from many local elected representatives that they also believe that a limit on contributions and a limit or an elimination of union and corporate donations makes sense.

They are supportive of that — and they are people who are beneficiaries of union and corporate donations — saying it’s not good for our democracy and we should bring it to an end. But this legislation, Bill 17, ignored them and ignored that. So when there’s all the talk about all of the consultation that went on, you have to understand that consultation means something if people are heard and if it’s reflected, if their comments are reflected, in the final result.

When you take a big piece of the conversation and don’t allow it to occur because you remove it from the mandate of the committee that was hearing from people, then you create a problem. That’s exactly what’s happened here around this piece of legislation.

We know that there’s been a lot of discussion in this place. My colleague the member for Saanich North and the Islands has introduced a number of pieces of legislation around election reform here, reforms that would do a variety of things, including dealing with this issue of contributions and contribution limits at the provincial level.

Now, the government has resisted that and has clearly had no interest in that model, certainly no interest that we’ve seen. I guess that it makes a little bit of sense to me that the government might be reluctant to talk about eliminating union and corporate donations at the local level.

They might feel a little bit hypocritical. The hypocrisy might be a bit much for them, to say: “We’re going to limit contributions at the local level, when we put no limits on ourselves.” I understand the hypocrisy of that, and maybe that’s what the government was thinking when it chose not to put contribution limits in place.

As we move forward, we need to make some decisions about this. This is an issue that will be left unresolved. This piece of legislation clearly will pass. It will put some expense limits in place, and those will be good. But as has been pointed out, it’s essentially the 28-day period. It does nothing around expenditures prior to that and where that money can come from. We’ve got a bit of the Wild West in periods outside of the 28 days. That’s a problem too.

If the government side is really interested in levelling that playing field at the local level and making this about individuals and ideas, then it will put contribution limits in place. One of the challenges, when you put expense limits in place…. This issue was raised by a councillor in Vancouver, who said part of the problem with this piece of legislation is it will say you can only spend X amount of dollars, but there’s no limit on from whom or an amount that you can receive in contributions.

You could have situations where one or two funders essentially bankroll a campaign, and there’s nothing good about that. There’s nothing good about having one or two funders bankroll a campaign. That will raise all kinds of questions that really should never be on the table. One way to deal with that, of course, is to say that only individuals can make donations and there’s a clear cap on the amount that they can contribute, whatever that amount might be.

The problem with this is that it says something entirely different and would, in fact, allow that to happen. That becomes a problem, and it certainly becomes a problem in bigger jurisdictions where large, large cheques can be written. We know large cheques are written.

Vision and the NPA didn’t get their bank accounts all through $20 donations. That certainly didn’t happen. It came from very large cheques from a variety of organizations on both sides.

The folks in Vancouver, I believe, on both sides of that issue — and I think the Justice Minister was a supporter of this when she was a city councillor, but her view apparently has changed — are saying: “Put contribution limits in place.” On both the NPA and the Vision side, even though they are beneficiaries, they are saying: “Contribution limits need to be put in place.” That’s something that we should consider.

I would certainly hope that the government would think about this. We’ve got a couple of weeks to get this piece of legislation done. We’re going to go off for a couple of weeks’ break. We’re going to come back and deal with this in committee. We will have some discussion about these issues, undoubtedly, in committee. The minister has an opportunity to give it a thought, to introduce an amendment to, in fact, put those contribution limits in place and move forward. I would be very supportive of that.

If the government is choosing not to do that, then as a Vancouver member of the Legislature…. Considering Vancouver is, at this point, the largest and has arguably one of the most sophisticated and mature political systems of local government with some capacity, because of its size, to really make decisions for itself — and there are only a handful of jurisdictions that could claim this — I would ask that the Vancouver Charter be amended — and the city of Vancouver be allowed, under the Vancouver Charter, since Vancouver exists and operates under a unique piece of legislation — to allow Vancouver city council to make these decisions for themselves.

Let them make the decision about whether they are going to limit contributions, whether they are going to restrict union and corporate donations, whether they are going to make these decisions for themselves. They can have the debate. They can adopt the bylaws to, in fact, do that. And they can be politically accountable for their own decisions. I know the Vancouver council would be happy to be given the authority to do that.

If the province doesn’t want to do it and wants to put in place Bill 17, I would say let’s allow the city of Vancouver, which exists under its own charter, to make these decisions for itself and to step up and do what it thinks is right — to have the consultation it needs to have around the specific questions and then be able to move forward on them. It doesn’t have to change ensuring that Vancouver has to respect the limits of Bill 17, but allow the city of Vancouver to build on that by being able to take further steps that the council, I suspect, would unanimously support, which is a limit on contributions and on union and corporate donations.

If the government doesn’t want to do this across the province, for reasons that I don’t understand, then at least allow it to happen in Vancouver, where the council would like to have the authority to do that.

You have a piece of legislation that is going to take one step down that road, is going to deal with the expense limits. We will wait to see what the regulatory regime looks like, but it will put in place expense limits. That’s a good thing for the 28 days that they’re in place. But it doesn’t deal with the other big piece of this question, and that is the failure of Bill 17. That’s the failure of a piece of legislation that was supposed to correct a problem that is pretty widely recognized and pretty widely acknowledged by just about everybody, except the folks on the government side.

I would hope that the minister will give some reconsideration over the couple of weeks that we’re not here, may decide that these changes actually have some value and are worthwhile, and will bring back amendments at the committee stage that we could all support, and we could move forward and all feel good about voting for this bill.

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