VANCOUVER – A years-long crusade to get big money out of British Columbia’s municipal elections may finally make headway now that a new provincial government is overhauling its own reputation as the campaign finance ne’er-do-well of the western world.
Local government politicians say the time has come to rein in lax laws around political fundraising and spending, while the B.C. government moves to ban union and corporate donations and limit individual donations to $1,200 at the provincial level.
The issue is near the top of the agenda as municipal leaders meet this week in Vancouver for the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ annual convention.
Politicians will be asked to support a proposal to push for local government finance reform in light of developments at the provincial level and in keeping with similar resolutions passed at previous conventions.
“It’s something we’ve been asking for for a long time,” UBCM President Murry Krause said in an interview.
Campaign expenses at the local government level can be costly. Disclosure statements filed with Elections BC show the municipal slate of Vision Vancouver, with 15 council and park board candidates led by Mayor Gregor Robertson, spent more than $3.3 million during the 2014 election.
In the most recent provincial election, the NDP spend $4.3 million, the Liberals $4.6 million and the Greens $271,000.
Provincial expenses do not include transfers from the party to individual candidates and riding associations, which raise the amounts to $7.9 million for the NDP, $13.6 million for the Liberals and $905,000 for the Greens.
David Moscrop, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, said the New Democrat government would be hard pressed to deny mayors their long-standing request.
He described the municipal arena is the next logical target for a wave of electoral finance reform that has swept Canada, arriving belatedly in B.C.
“There’s no logical reason now or moral justification to not apply it now to the municipal level,” he said. “It would be ridiculous not to.”
Selina Robinson, B.C.’s minister for municipal affairs, said the government is committed to finance reform and that work is underway on exploring changes at the local government level.
“I think it’s important to recognize that it hasn’t just been local governments asking for that. The majority of the people of British Columbia have been very vocal about this issue,” said Robinson, a former city councillor in Coquitlam.
Robinson added that she is uncertain whether changes can be made in time for the next round of municipal elections, scheduled for October 2018.
Years of advocacy work by municipalities fell on deaf ears while the previous Liberal government was in office, which political scientist Max Cameron said had more to do with the party’s unwillingness to change the rules at the provincial level.
Having one set of rules for municipalities and another for the province would have been embarrassing, said Cameron, a professor at the University of British Columbia.
Now is the time for cities to act, he added.
“We don’t know how long this window will be open,” he said. “If I were the City of Vancouver, I’d be working pretty hard to get something together pretty quickly to propose to the province.”
But Andrew Wilkinson, attorney general critic for the Opposition Liberals, said his party’s reluctance had more to do with the complexity of coming up with legislation that would be equally appropriate for small villages and densely populated urban centres.
“The funding machinery and mechanisms for local government elections need to be very flexible and take into account these widely varying circumstances that really don’t apply at the provincial or federal level,” Wilkinson said.
“It’s just proven to be too complicated an issue to satisfy the needs of all kinds of communities.”
Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang said he hopes changes are in place for the 2018 elections and he expects them to begin in his city, thanks to years of “over the top” spending.
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