The B.C. government has introduced changes to campaign financing rules for municipal elections aimed at clamping down on some of the big loopholes that were exploited by candidates in the lead-up to the 2018 vote.
The gaps prompted criticism that, in the NDP’s haste to rewrite campaign financing to govern party fundraising and spending at the provincial level, rules for municipal campaigns were inadequate, prompting many candidates to search for work-arounds.
The province’s new Municipal Affairs Minister said all of the problems highlighted during the municipal campaign will be addressed.
“This legislation, if passed, will strengthen election campaign financing rules so local elections are more equitable and transparent,” said Josie Osborne, shortly after the proposed new legislation was tabled Wednesday.
The NDP’s 2017 rules banned corporate and union donations and limited individual donations to $1,200, but the prohibitions didn’t kick in until a month before an election. That allowed developer Peter Wall to spend $80,000 on billboards to promote one Vancouver mayoral candidate up until 29 days before the election, without any requirement to report or limit the spending. His effort only came to light when Mr. Wall disclosed it to The Globe and Mail.
Civic parties were able to raise as much money as they wanted before the official campaign period, with no requirement to report how much or from where, and with considerable fuzziness about whether unions or other groups could contribute as much as they wanted of “in kind” donations, such as staff time for door-knocking or communications to their members about voting.
In addition, there were several attack campaigns against various candidates conducted through social media, with no disclosure about who was paying for them.
Under the proposed changes, Ms. Osborne said Elections BC will be given more power to investigate, including the authority to get information from banks and social-media companies about party finances or individuals who are paying for various forms of advertising.
Campaign spending by any group will have to be reported for a three-month period before the election, instead of the current not-quite one month – a move that will in theory prevent backers from spending unlimited amounts up to 29 days before the election.
As well, civic parties will have to register, produce annual reports and state where their operating money in non-election years came from.
However, it appears that candidates who don’t belong to a party will be able to raise as much money as they like in non-campaign years without having to report.
That would benefit candidates such as current Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who is already raising money for his 2022 run but does not belong to a party, and Ken Sim, a former NPA mayoral candidate who has said he will run as an independent in 2022. He sent out an e-mail to supporters a couple of months ago saying he had already raised $400,000 for his effort.
In spite of that, people who monitor the problems with municipal election campaigns in British Columbia say the proposed legislative changes are an improvement.
“This should mean that a lot of funds that are currently claimed as operational expenses, like non-election-year digital marketing and communications, will no longer be exempt from declaration and public scrutiny,” Vancouver Green Party Councillor Pete Fry said. “This really helps to daylight some of the dark money that continues to infiltrate and influence our political systems.”
Most of the measures won’t come into place until the start of the 2022 campaign year, except for one.
Ms. Osborne said any sponsorship money spent on by-elections held this year will need to stick to the $1,200 limit and be reported.
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