Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


April 7, 2014

Remarks on Bill 20, the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act

S. Simpson: I'm pleased to take my place to speak to Bill 20, the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act. We know that this is a piece of legislation that came from work that was done heading up into 2010, work that was done jointly by the government and the Union of B.C. Municipalities, looking through the establishment of a Local Government Elections Task Force and a report that subsequently came from the work of that task force. The task force took a pretty broad approach and addressed a whole range of issues.

Now, I would note that the task force reported out in 2010 — a number of things that we'll talk about, some of the specifics of this. I think one of the things that's most telling is that by the time we get to completion, from a legislative perspective, of the work of the task force, we will be eight years out from the time that that task force actually fulfilled and completed its work.

A little bit about what's in the bill. The bill does address some key issues. First of all, it does require candidates to file campaign finance disclosure statements within 90 days, rather than 120 days, post-election. It's always good to get that information out as promptly as possible and to do that.

It requires that sponsorship information be published on all election advertisements so we have some sense of where that sponsorship is coming from and that third-party advertising sponsors be required to register and disclose expenditures made within the 46-day pre-election period. We do have some requirements there.

The other piece that's significant and a change here is the new compliance and enforcement role established for Elections B.C., including on-line publishing of candidate campaign disclosures. Currently, as members will know, all of this is done by local governments. There is no role for Elections B.C. today. That will change after this legislation, presumably, passes in this session. All of those things are fine. There's not a problem with that. They come out of the joint recommendations, the recommendations of the task force — recommendations that generally are pretty acceptable.

What are the challenges around this piece of legislation? The challenges really are in what's not there — the pieces that the government and the minister have chosen not to put in place for this particular piece of legislation, pieces that, there's been indication, will be put in place for implementation possibly for 2018. I want to speak a little bit about those.

I think probably the most challenging and telling piece around this is spending limits and donation limits. As people will know, probably one of the best decisions that's been made around elections and election expenses — and it's in place at the federal level and at the provincial level — creates a formula, and it tells me how much I can spend as a candidate and how much every other candidate can spend in order to seek election.

This is a good policy. It's a policy in place, again, federally and provincially, and it levels the playing field. It helps to determine that in fact you have a situation where elections can't be just about money. They have to be about ideas. They have to be about engagement. They have to be about platforms. They have to be about candidates. They can't just be bought and be about money.

At the local level we don't have that situation. We have a situation where there is unlimited spending in place. Of course, in many communities that's not as significant an issue as it is in others, but in our larger urban communities it is an issue. It's a very real issue in the city of Vancouver, where I'm from. It's a growing issue in places like Surrey, a growing issue in other urban areas.

That's the reality of this. You have a situation where in Vancouver, for example, parties spend literally millions of dollars. The leading parties can spend well in excess of $1 million in order to elect candidates.

That creates a situation where independents and smaller parties are not in the game at all. That's the political reality that we face. Part of the objectives of the task force was to try to level this playing field, to try to create a situation where that doesn't occur, to create a situation where people have the authority to spend enough money to get their message out, to put their campaign in place, to be able to have the infrastructure for their campaign that allows them to go out and successfully deliver their message and reach out to voters — all important and essential.

That's what happens provincially and federally. But at the end of the day, to create a situation by caps on spending, where no candidate can dramatically outspend another candidate, where money isn't the issue…. The reality is, as we know, that the municipal level of government is one of the few levels of government where you can make people wealthy overnight by rezoning a piece of property. You can make somebody wealthy in a minute.

We know, if we look at who makes contributions to campaigns, that the development industry does that. I don't have a problem with that. The development industry is there. They are actively supporting candidates across the political spectrum, in many cases, that they believe are in their interest. That's not the problem.

The problem is when that support can become so dramatic that other candidates cannot participate in a fair way in an election process. When you don't have some kind of cap on what people can spend, you create that problem and you create that circumstance. What we needed here was for the government to fulfil its promise to put that in place, and that hasn't occurred here. We need a situation where candidates have a limit on what they spend.

Let's be clear. In a place like Vancouver, if you created a situation where you limited the spending for each candidate on council and said, "but you can come together as a political organization, merge your capped spending and spend it in a collective way," which I would be supportive of, they'd still have lots of money to spend — lots and lots of money — but there would be some limits on that. This doesn't do that. This doesn't oblige that to occur, and that's problematic.

It's interesting that it's not only problematic across the province, but one of the important things here is we've seen the current administration in Vancouver raise these same concerns and ask for changes to the Vancouver Charter that would allow them to address this issue, would allow them to move forward on this issue.

It wouldn't require the provincial government to prescribe, other than to empower the Vancouver government, the council in Vancouver, to be able to make those changes. They have been clear on their commitments around spending limits and caps. It would be a good thing in the city of Vancouver.

I watch local elections pretty closely and have for a long, long time, and I know how problematic it is. I know how challenging it is when one or two political organizations spend $1 million plus, and everybody else spends $50,000 or $100,000 in total spending. That creates a problem, and that has to be addressed in some way.

This legislation had the opportunity to address that issue. It hasn't done that. We're told to wait, and it will come for 2018. We'll see; 2018 is a long way away. But the commitment was there to put it in place for this election. It's a commitment that was not fulfilled by the current government, and that's a problem.

The flip side, the other piece of this, of course, is the ability to make donations and capping how much you can donate. There is some merit in this. I think that organizations and individuals need to have the right to be able to make donations and to contribute and disclose those donations to any candidates that they choose, but at some point it makes some sense to say that we're going to put some limit on what the value of those contributions is.

It doesn't matter whether it's corporations or unions or whoever, but putting some limit on those donations just makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense in terms of ensuring that elections are fair and ensuring that there isn't the question — and this is perception as much as reality — about whether those donations are influencing decision-making.

I believe that in the vast majority of cases, there's no doubt that the people who are elected are making the determinations that they believe are the right ones. They're principled decisions, and they're moving forward, but when there are big donations, we know that that does create perception about things when decisions are made.

You have to believe that when those decisions are being made — and they may be supportive of organizations, whether they're corporate organizations or unions or whoever. When a council and a local government make those decisions that are supportive of the interests of those groups, that people be able to see that that's based on merit…. It's based on those being the right decisions in terms of public policy and public interest, and not about a private interest. Perception is so important with that.

What we know is that's not just critical to those elected officials that their integrity is protected, but it's also important for those entities. Whether it's a union, a business, a developer or whoever, it's important for them. It's important for them to be able to not be painted or tarred with a brush that may be unfair.

If you limit the amount, you begin to start to address those issues. I think that's really important. It is the question of limiting how much you can spend, limiting how much you can donate and ensuring transparency so everybody knows what that situation is and knows what the circumstance is. Then people can be more confident.

We all know it here. We've seen it, and we continue to see it. There's a skepticism, maybe growing to be cynicism in some ways, about elected officials and the roles we play. We need to challenge that. But in order to challenge that, we do need to have the rules in place that support that. Having those rules in place…. All too often it's about money. One way or the other, it's about money. The key pieces here are about money, and that's what we need to put in place.

Sadly, this particular piece of legislation doesn't do that. The piece that's directly related to that is related to the city of Vancouver. We know the city of Vancouver has made the request. That request has been supported by the UBCM — that they have a charter change that enables them, empowers the city of Vancouver, to make some of these decisions, even if the government at this point isn't prepared to do it across the board and across the province.

There's an argument that this may not be a one-size-fits-all situation, where every municipality — in terms of size, capacity and all those things — needs to be treated the same way. I think that's a fair conversation and a fair discussion. But I don't think there's any question that a place like Vancouver, which has its own charter and is a pretty sophisticated and mature political environment — that they are prepared to put those kinds of limits in place. They have the capacity to do it, and they have the capacity to enforce it.

I think that it makes absolute and eminent sense to have done that and to have allowed the city of Vancouver to in fact have put in place the limits and the caps that they believe make sense — and to have had that public debate in Vancouver, where everybody who's interested in the municipal election process would have had the opportunity to have a discussion with the elected officials there about what that should look like, what the structure should look like, what the limits should be and how you structure it to allow people to work collaboratively in the political organizations.

That would have been a good and important discussion. Not just for the money; it also would have been an important discussion, I think, to raise confidence in our electoral process. Who knows? Maybe it might have helped to add 3, 4 or 5 percent to the percentage of people who vote. That would be a good thing.

We all know the challenges that we face and the frustrations I think we all feel that we would like more people to engage in the process and to vote. If you think it's tough for us, at the municipal level it's all the more challenging. Anything that would support, at the municipal level, enhancing and engaging more people in that process would be a good thing.

If people have increased confidence about the financial aspects of election finance and how election finance works and the fairness of it, I think it enhances the willingness of people and the desire of people to participate. We could have done that with this piece of legislation, but we didn't. That's a big, big problem.

Again, in Vancouver they weren't asking the province to prescribe a process and a solution for them. They were asking the government to give them the power and to enable them to have come up with a solution that made sense for Vancouver.

As I think I heard the minister say, it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. Well, that's probably true. Vancouver has that capacity to have done that for themselves, to have done it in a way that was professional and thorough and competent and created a structure that worked and was transparent enough that people who had questions about it could choose to do that and question it. The public debate would have been driven in Vancouver.

That change could have happened. It hasn't happened. I would hope that if we don't achieve this, this time — and it's pretty clear from this legislation that the government doesn't intend to deal with this critical question — it will be put in place and the people in Vancouver will be allowed to make that change moving forward, whether it be to a 2017 or a 2018 election, depending on how the companion piece of legislation, Bill 21, plays out over the coming debate. That would have been a positive thing to do, and we could have accomplished that.

The other piece here that's a bit challenging is that Elections B.C. has been asked to play a much more significant role in compliance and enforcement. I don't have a problem with that. I think Elections B.C. is a very professional and sophisticated organization. It's an organization that has, really, something to contribute to this.

The problem I have is that Elections B.C., I think, is generally a pretty efficient and effective organization today, and no new resources have been applied to Elections B.C. in this legislation. We're not seeing, and we don't see in the budget, new resources that ensure that Elections B.C. has capacity — and if they have to add some resources to the organization to ensure they have the capacity to be able to go out and do the work that's contemplated in Bill 20 and accomplish the results and be able to provide some confidence around compliance and enforcement.

They certainly have all the ability in the world to do that, but they may take a little bit more resources. I would hope that the minister.... I'm sure that the critic will talk to the minister about this in committee stage — about how in fact that occurs and about how in fact Elections B.C. is presumed to have that capacity to do that and what discussions the minister and her officials have had with Elections B.C. about their ability to do this and about whether there are places where they've identified potential shortfalls in their own capacity and their own resources that will need to be reinforced or bolstered in order for them to do this.

Hopefully, the minister will have had those discussions. Where there are those areas where there may be shortcomings that need to be addressed, maybe the minister will be in a place to tell the critic during committee stage how in fact that's going to occur so that we have a situation where we know that Elections B.C. is going to be able to do the job that we all want them to be able to do, to support and improve the circumstance of local election finance.

Those are the pieces that jump out at me as pieces where there are the shortcomings of this. You have a piece of legislation that generally, for what it accomplishes here, is just fine. It's a reflection of a large part of what the task force had to say — just fine. The process to do that was just fine, and that has created the situation we have. But the holes, the omissions, in the legislation are significant and glaring because they exclude and omit the pieces that I believe most folks would have told you were some of the most critical pieces to the success of this legislation and to the work of the task force.

They would tell you that it, in fact, is about the money. People say "follow the money," and that's always true in elections too — follow the money. This is about the money, and it is about the ability to collect that money, how you collect it, who you collect it from and then how much you can spend. We simply need to put those limits in place if we're going to accomplish, I think, the kind of level playing field that I would hope everybody in this room would think was valuable, the kind of level playing field we all face, where we all get to spend the same amount of money come election time.

We don't have a situation where if you can raise $100,000 more than me, you get to spend an extra $100,000. We're all told at the beginning of the game, "Here's the spending limit, and you don't breach the spending limit," and that's what we spend. That's the right rule, it's the right law, and it's the right thing to do. And believe me, if it's the right thing do to do for our national government and it's the right thing to do for our provincial government, it is inexplicable to me why that isn't the right thing to do for our local government.

I would hope that the minister will be able to explain why this didn't come into play. Again, I'm sure the critic will delve into these questions in some depth in the committee stage, but these are questions that have not been answered to anybody's satisfaction as to why these omissions are here.

Eight years — the government had eight years since they got this report to write these rules. Eight years, and we're still not there. They'll have eight years, I should say, by the time we're done and by the time they get them written. You know, they've had four years now, heading up to this election.

At first the hope was that they were going to get them in place for 2011. Didn't happen. Fair enough. You know, the report came out in 2010. Maybe it might have been the suggestion it was a little too rushed to get them in place for 2011. That might have been fair to say: "We just didn't have enough time to get this done."

I don't question that. I think that that might have been a fair position to take. If you knew that you wanted them in place, that you were going to accept the recommendations and that you were going to deal with the problem and you said, "We can't quite get it done for 2011…." Understood. But it's inexplicable as to why you couldn't get it done for 2014, in three years.

There was no shortage of time for the people to write and for leg. counsel to investigate and for all the analysis to happen, but the government simply didn't do it. They chose not to do it. It raises questions about: did they just drop the ball, or was there a conscious decision that this was simply not a change that they wanted to make? There are folks who believe the current system — with unlimited spending, few controls, a little bit of a wild west approach — is what people like just fine. Don't know for sure, but it raises a serious question of that, because it is not defensible to say that you couldn't have gotten this thing written in three years — just not defensible to say that.

I look forward to the ongoing debate around this. I look forward to committee stage. I look forward to hearing the minister explain how these shortcomings of the bill occurred and why the minister and the government weren't able to address these matters when they had the better part of three years to do it from the time they got the report — why they haven't been able to accomplish these objectives and what the roadblocks are that have blocked the ability of the government to find a way to deal with caps, with spending limits and donation limits, and why that hasn't happened.

Maybe we'll all be enlightened that there's some legitimate reason for this. But it's pretty hard-pressed to find one right now, pretty hard-pressed to see what occurred that didn't allow somebody to pay some attention to this and get it fixed over the last few years so that we would be running the upcoming municipal elections this November, the 2014 elections this November, under a set of rules that would have levelled those playing fields across the board. That would have ensured that candidates all had a fair chance, in terms of the spending side, to make their case, to make their argument and to be, hopefully, judged on the merit of their character as candidates and their ideas and vision for their jurisdictions.

Instead, we have a situation where that will not necessarily be the case, because of money. It's not acceptable, again, federally. It's not acceptable provincially. It shouldn't be acceptable municipally. This law doesn't deal with that. It's a significant flaw here. So we're going to adopt a piece of legislation that deals with a number of issues — and that's all good — but it's terribly flawed when it comes to the most fundamental issues of all, and those are the issues about where the money is and how you follow the money.

With that, I'll take my place and enjoy the rest of the debate.

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