British Columbia

Fight over campaign financing in Vancouver likely to be rough

The fight over campaign financing in Vancouver's 2008 civic election is shaping up to be a tough one, with all sides entrenched and millions of dollars at stake.
The fight over campaign financing in Vancouver's 2008 civic election is shaping up to be a tough one, with all sides entrenched and millions of dollars at stake.
NPA caucus aide George Higgins says Mayor Sam Sullivan has banked roughly $250,000 in its campaign fund through a series of fundraisers. ((Stephen Quinn/CBC) )

Vision Vancouver, for example, certainly knows why it wants to ban certain campaign contributions, and cap campaign spending in next year's civic election.

"We think major donations have simply gotten out of hand in the city for all the parties involved," Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal told CBC News Wednesday.

"We think that most cities don't see this kind of money coming and it's time to take it down to a level playing field that is at a more reasonable level for civic elections," she said.

The councillor will bring a motion to next week's council meeting calling for a number of changes to how municipal election campaigns are financed.

Among the proposed changes: caps on campaign spending, a ban on contributions from unions and corporations, and continuous public disclosure of all donations, not just contributions made during the campaign period.

According to party disclosure statements, in the 2005 civic race the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) spent $1,157,641, Vision Vancouver spent $1,556,927, and COPE spent $528,934, for a combined total of $3,243,503.

With 130,011 people casting ballots, that means, combined, the three parties spent $24.95 per ballot.

By comparison, in the 2004 U.S. presidential race George W. Bush and John Kerry spent a combined $615 million on their campaigns, with 121 million Americans casting ballots, for a per-ballot cost of $5.08.

Some grey areas

Vancouver's deputy chief elections officer, Marg Coulsen, admitted that on the proposal of continuous public disclosure of all donations there is some grey area.

Coulsen said civic parties may raise funds to cover day-to-day operating expenses between election cycles.

"Election expenses are incurred in the calendar year that an election occurs, but in terms of a campaign contribution for campaign activities, that could happen at anytime."

If a contribution is going to be used during an election campaign it must be disclosed, regardless of when it was received, Coulsen said.

"Our advice is that when in doubt, disclose," Coulsen said.

COPE Coun. David Cadman said making a distinction between the campaign itself and a pre-campaign period allows parties to disguise election spending, and called it "a huge loophole."

"Every dollar spent in advance of the campaign is, in fact, a more efficient dollar than a dollar spent during a campaign, so if you get all of your voter identification done prior to the campaign and don't show that as a cost, and only show the billboards and the advertising as a cost, then you've obviously got a huge advantage," said Cadman.

Michael Magee, the co-chair of Vision Vancouver, said his party makes no such distinction, adding that's why it appears that in the 2005 election Vision outspent the NPA by nearly $400,000.

"These civic political organizations exist for the sole purpose of putting candidates in office," he said. "As far as we're concerned, all money raised over the three-year cycle is campaign money."

"The campaign begins after election day," said NPA caucus aide George Higgins.

The party will disclose all of the money raised between the last election and the vote in November of 2008, Higgins said, adding that after two fundraising dinners, the most recent on Tuesday night, the party has roughly $250,000 in its campaign fund.

Mayor Sam Sullivan has banked roughly the same amount through a series of fundraisers, he said, one in May at the Southlands home of Vancouver businessman Lorne Segal, and another last week that drew 32 people, paying $5,000 each.

Disclosure documents filed with the city clerks office show Sullivan raised $489,014 for his successful 2005 election campaign, with the first contribution arriving in May 2005, six months before the election.

The NPA finished the last election with a modest surplus.

Vision Vancouver was left with a deficit of $199,927 following the election. Magee said the deficit has just been paid off and the party is now raising money for the 2008 race.

Looking for disclosure

Political organizations that spend more than they raise during a campaign are obligated to disclose who paid off the deficit, Coulsen said.

"It amounts to retro-active campaign financing," said Coulsen. "We would expect the party to disclose those contributions."

Magee said that's a different interpretation than what he has heard in the past, but that Vision will disclose in full how the debt was paid.

In March 2005, the COPE-dominated city council passed a motion proposing some of the same changes under the heading "Recommendations to Improve Civic Democracy."

While campaign financing was not the focus of the recommendations, council did ask the province to amend the Vancouver Charter to require that electoral organizations and candidates report all contributions, regardless of whether the contributions related to an election expense and regardless of when they were received.

Sullivan, then one of two opposition members of council, was the only councillor to oppose the recommendation.

Coulsen said the recommendations have been received by the province's Ministry of Community Services, and that the ministry is currently working to pare them down. She said the issue could come before the legislature as early as next spring.

Vision Vancouver wants council to appoint an independent expert to consult with the public on its recommendations, and report back by March 2008.

Deal has not released details of how a cap on municipal campaign contributions would work, or what the maximum limit would be.

A radical change

Banning unions and corporations from contributing to civic elections in Vancouver would radically change how campaigns are funded.

In 2005, Vision Vancouver received $984,000 from corporations and $158,318 from unions, so without those donations the party would have been left with just $213,000.

COPE, which raised $525,740.81 to mount its 2005 campaign, received $360,511 from unions, and just $25,763 from business donors.

The NPA raised $1,204,937, with $219,943 coming from corporate donors. Much of the money the NPA raised in 2005 came from candidate nomination "fees," and the mayor's own re-election fund.

The NPA is promising that when Vision's motion goes to council next week, it will get a rough ride.

Sullivan blasted the opposition at Tuesday night's fundraiser, accusing them of "egging on" union leaders in the three-month long strike by city workers.

Deal insists Vision Vancouver's motion is not about distancing itself from the unions or the strike.

"Four per cent of our donations came from CUPE last time and we have no problem with that. We're saying it's time to get the entire funding envelope for municipal elections under control," she said.

Deal said municipal elections in an at-large system are about name recognition, and that getting your name out can be an expensive prospect.

"It is a challenge, I'm not saying it won't be. But we think it should be a challenge that is done without the major corporate and union donations."

Other cities have limits

Both Toronto and Montreal have spending limits for civic elections based on the number of registered voters.

In Montreal, parties can also collect money anonymously in a box at their events, but the total of all the money collected anonymously in a year can not exceed 20 per cent of the total that the party or individual collects. Parties and individuals are obligated to disclose what they raise between elections.

In Toronto, campaign donations are governed by a similar formula based on the number of electors in each ward. Typically mayoral candidates spend roughly $1 million on a campaign and city councillors spend roughly $30,000.

In Ontario, candidates are prohibited from raising money between elections and can only accept contributions when a campaign is officially underway.

In Montreal, unions and corporations are banned from donating to municipal election campaigns.

The Toronto council has tried but failed to ban them, and in the last election the mayoral candidates and many council candidates voluntarily refused to accept corporate or union donations.