British Columbia·Exclusive

Campaign donation limits in B.C. have levelled playing field, CBC analysis finds

A ban on union and corporate donations to B.C. political parties and a cap on the amount individuals can give has hurt the B.C. Liberals the most, a CBC data analysis has found.

Ban on corporate, union donations has changed who the biggest donors are

From left, B.C. political leaders John Horgan, Sonia Furstenau and Andrew Wilkinson. Recently imposed limits on the amount of money donors can contribute has affected some B.C. political parties more than others, a CBC News analysis has found. (CBC)

A ban on union and corporate donations to B.C. political parties and a cap on the amount individuals can give has hurt the provincial Liberals the most, a CBC News analysis has found.

The ban was introduced by the NDP government, with Green Party support, in November 2017.

Annual contributions to both the B.C. NDP and the B.C. Liberals plummeted from $16 million in 2017 to just over $3 million in 2018, after the new rules took effect, according to Political Contributions data from Elections BC.

However, 2017 was an election year, so contributions to all parties were higher than usual. 

In more typical, non-election years before the ban, such as 2015 and 2016, contributions to the NDP and Greens were not far off from what they were in 2019, after the ban. (The Greens, who banned union and corporate donations prior to 2017, even saw an increase in contributions between 2016 and 2018.)

That, however, was not the case for the B.C. Liberals.

 

Contributions to that party dropped by nearly three-quarters between 2016 and 2018, from $12.3 million to $3.6 million. 

Even though B.C.'s two largest parties both used to accept tens of thousands from deep-pocketed donors — unions in the case of the NDP and businesses in the case of the Liberals, for the most part — the Liberals were more dependent on those donations. 

A previous CBC analysis of 12 years of Elections BC campaign contribution data, between 2005 and 2016, found the B.C. Liberals received almost two-thirds of their contributions from businesses, while the NDP received roughly one-third from unions.

It's likely the smaller pot of money available to political parties has curtailed the current election campaign in certain ways, but that also could be due to COVID-19, said Gerald Baier, an associate professor of political science at the University of B.C.

"I don't think I've noticed any buses with leader logos on the side. I think that may just be a consequence of not having the money," Baier said.

It also means parties likely have to rely more on volunteers as they may not have the money to hire as many political staffers, he added.

B.C. will go to the polls again on Oct. 24. 

University of B.C. political science associate professor Gerald Baier says it's surprising the provincial Liberals have not diversified their fundraising base. (Kevin Li/CBC)

Smaller donations become more important

Donations of $250 or less, which are listed as one entity in the Elections BC data, collectively form the biggest piece of the donation pie for all three parties.

This was also true before the rule change in late 2017, but the caps have made those types of donations more important.

The NDP typically raises double the amount through these smaller contributions than the Liberals, which is one reason it has been less affected by the limits.

The B.C. Greens get the biggest share of their funding — close to a quarter — from these sources.

 

Big money made a difference

The extent of union and corporate donations is apparent when comparing the top donors to B.C. political parties before and after the ban was imposed in November 2017.

Unions represented eight of the 10 biggest donors when the election year of 2017 is included in the data.

 

The picture changes significantly after the new rules — which also capped the amount individuals could contribute to each party, starting at $1,200 per year in 2018 — came into effect.

Individual donors giving much smaller amounts, and often to more than one party, emerge as the top contributors. 

Estates of people who died before the campaign finance rules changed in November 2017 are counted under the former (that is, nonexistent) contribution limits, according to Elections BC.

The David Black listed as a top contributor is not the same David Black who owns the community newspaper chain Black Press, according to his executive assistant. 

As a newspaper publisher, Black feels obligated not to contribute to political campaigns, she told CBC News in an email.

Elections BC's per-party political contribution limits were $1,200 in 2018, $1,225.17 in 2019 and $1,253.15 in 2020.

 

Methodology

CBC News downloaded Political Contributions data from Elections BC from Jan. 1, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2019. We then downloaded Interim Political Contributions between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2020, the most recent date possible. We combined the two datasets after verifying with Elections BC that doing so would not introduce any errors or duplications.

We then combined data points that represented different variants of the same entity into common names. Examples included combining contributions from different locals of the same union, or entries from "Company," "Company, Inc." and "Company, Ltd.," etc.

We also standardized the names of individual donors that appeared as different entities due to hyphenation or punctuation differences. 

It should be noted that the Political Contributions data contains some donations to the B.C. Liberals in excess of $20,000 between 2018 and 2020, after the limits were imposed. These contributions were related to the B.C. Liberal leadership campaign, which took place in 2018, but was announced in 2017. Because of this, the Liberal leadership campaign and any debt payments associated with it operated under the 2017 political financing rules, according to Elections BC. CBC News made a methodological decision to filter out contributions related to leadership campaigns as they have little bearing on the current race.

About the Author

Tara Carman

Data Journalist

Tara Carman is an investigative journalist who specializes in finding the stories buried in big data. She has more than a decade of experience reporting in B.C., across Canada and overseas. She joined CBC News in February 2017. You can reach her at tara.carman@cbc.ca or on Twitter @tarajcarman.

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