British Columbia·Analysis

How Vancouver campaign finance revelations could affect voters

For the first time, Vancouver's civic parties have voluntarily revealed who has donated to their campaigns, with less than a week to go before the munipal elections Saturday.

For the first time, the city's civic parties have voluntarily revealed who has donated to their campaigns

Mayoral candidates Kirk LaPointe, left, and Gregor Robertson have released their parties' lists of campaign donors, as have the other civic parties in Vancouver. (CBC)

Vancouver voters are very lucky.

As they head to the polls on Saturday, they have access to information that, in previous elections, was only available months after they would have cast their ballots.

For the first time, civic parties have voluntarily revealed their donor lists, providing a valuable tool to see where electoral organizations get their money from and, therefore, who wants them to succeed.

Cynics suggest it also shows who is trying to buy influence at City Hall, believing it would be naive to think that non-deductible donations in the thousands of dollars don't at least merit a returned phone call or an attentive ear at a social function.

It’s certainly hard not to be at least skeptical when the Vancouver Taxi Association gives $53,000 to Vision Vancouver and $2,500 to the Green Party of Vancouver, and council unanimously votes for a six-month moratorium on new taxi licenses just as the ride-share app Uber is planning to re-enter the Vancouver market.

The transparency gamble

For the Non-Partisan Association, Vision Vancouver, the Coalition of Progressive Electors, the Green Party of Vancouver and OneCity, this was a risky and gutsy move, pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of their campaigns. 

Their gamble is that any blowback over who’s on their list will be outweighed by winning points for transparency.

Unfortunately, the lists expose what is so very wrong with municipal election financing and point to a need for an overhaul.

Currently, there is no limit on how much individuals, businesses and unions can contribute. Candidates can spend as much as they want.

No wonder UBC political scientist Max Cameron says it's the "Wild West" when it comes to municipal election financing in British Columbia.

COPE mayoral candidate Meena Wong has also released her party's list of financial contributions. (CBC)

It's not pretty. Vision Vancouver has accepted more than $1.4 million from big business. The biggest cheques come from a who's who of developers and condo marketers: Aquilini, Amacon, Concord, Magnum and Rennie.

They have also accepted $320,880 from labour, the lion's share from CUPE, the union representing many of the City of Vancouver's unionized workers — underscoring a nasty back and forth between Vision and the NPA that has now landed in the courts.

The fact of the matter is, NPA doesn't look much better. Of more than $2.1 million dollars, $320,000 comes from NPA president Peter Armstrong's Great Canadian Railtour Co. Other big donors were developers Amacon, MacDonald and Orr as well as mining giant Teck Resources.

It's important to note that these lists only represent donors from 2014, not the time since the last election in 2011. All contributions to this year's campaign must be filed with Elections BC by next February.

The Green Party of Vancouver was the first out of the gate to disclose contributions.

It doesn't accept donations above $5,000 and doesn't take any money from developers or fossil fuel companies. The Vancouver Firefighters' Union has made a $5,000 donation.

Of the $66,114 COPE has received, most comes from individual donations. Unions have contributed $18,440. OneCity doesn't accept donations from developers but $33,000 of the $47,286.08 it disclosed to date is from unions.

Voters turned on or off?

So what will Vancouver voters do with this new information?

It’s unlikely they’ll entirely revolt against the idea of companies or organizations participating or supporting causes in the community in which they do business.

But perhaps the degree to which those groups participate — writing cheques in the thousands of dollars — will contribute to the perception that city politicians can be bought, tainting the entire process and turning voters off.

Most people who run for office are smart, thoughtful and genuinely want to make their city a better place to live.

Unless we want only the super rich to run under their own financial steam, candidates will always have to finance their campaigns somehow.

Will knowing how that financing is done change the way Vancouverites vote?

At least they’ll know a little more about the names behind the names on the ballot.

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