British Columbia·In Depth

Gold standard for political donations worldwide? Quebec, not B.C.

A spotlight on B.C.’s political financing practices hit the world stage this week and democracy watchers confirm that Quebec has recently risen to become a world standard in campaign corruption controls, while western provinces lag.

Fallout continues from New York Times article labelling B.C. the 'wild west' of political finance

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark works the cash register as she makes a campaign stop at a coffee shop in Quesnel, B.C. during the 2013 election. In 2016, her party brought in almost $8M in corporate donations. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

B.C.'s political donation rules met international criticism this week, and democracy watchers confirm Quebec is now the "gold standard" when it comes to campaign finance controls.

Provincial party fundraising practices were thrust on the world stage this week when a New York Times article branded B.C. the "wild west" of political finance, underscoring a lack of caps and controls on donations compared to other provinces.

"You're not just lagging. B.C. is amongst the worst provinces," said Christopher Cotton, political economist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"The idea that you don't even have to be a resident of B.C. to be contributing unlimited funds to influence the election is quite scary," said Cotton.

Quebec limits low

B.C.'s premier, Christy Clark, holds exclusive events where guests can pay to rub shoulders with power.

Christy Clark received $50,000 from the B.C. Liberal Party last year, on top of her taxpayer-funded salary. It's a long-standing practice in the party, but one the Opposition calls 'unacceptable.' (B.C. Liberals)

Meanwhile Quebec, a province rocked by corruption scandals in the past, is now held up as a gold standard worldwide with strict $100 political donation limits and other stringent controls.

"They are excellent on paper. The gold standard," said Cotton.

But that came after the $35-million Charbonneau Commission that probed systemic corruption concerns around construction contracts and campaign financing.

The scandal revolved around public contract awards linked to party financing and organized crime and ended with criminal trials of prominent politicians.

The investigations included an audit of 2006 to 2011 campaign financing that revealed $12.8 million in donations believed to be funnelled through individuals from corporate and union interests.

A corruption inquiry led to revamped controls that experts like Cotton say now put B.C.'s permissive policies to shame.

In fact B.C. — despite having one of the toughest conflict of interest laws on paper — is among the lax provinces that still allow unlimited contributions, including Saskatchewan, P.E.I., the Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Double safeguard

Other provinces still allow high contributions, but only B.C. and Saskatchewan still stand by stipends  — like the $50,000 the premier collected in 2015 from her party, financed by political contributions.

However, last night the premier announced she would no longer be accepting the stipend, leaving the B.C. Liberals to cover her costs for party events.

The B.C. Liberals raised $7.98 million in corporate donations and $4.49 million in individual donations in 2016. (CBC)

In fact, no province has a double safeguard, but Quebec.

Quebec limits donations to $100 and requires that money be submitted through Quebec's director general of elections.

Donations are augmented by some public funding.

Corruption experts admit it remains difficult to detect cash bribes paid directly to politicians.

To cap or not to cap

Calls to cap B.C. donations got a hard "no" this week from B.C. MLA Andrew Wilkinson, whose Liberal party garnered $6 million from 185 donors in 2016 — almost half of the party's finances.

"We don't have limits in British Columbia and it's been like that for decades and it's a system that works," said Wilkinson.

But NDP Leader John Horgan has long pushed for a ban on corporate and union donations.

"People internationally are now looking at B.C. with ridicule and disbelief that we can have fundraising practices as we do — It's not funny," said Horgan.

Up until Friday night, Premiery Clark had stayed mum on the financing fracas all week

She joked at a softwood lumber event, depicting Horgan as the kind of person who digs in your couch cushions for loose change.

Clark cleared of conflict

But the issue is bigger than chump change, warn international democracy watchdogs.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch is fighting a recent decision by B.C.'s conflicts commissioner that cleared the premier of any conflicts.

He says B.C. runs afoul of a myriad of rules designed to prevent the "policy capture" of parties by special interests.

A guide outlining best practices called the Framework on Financing Democracy by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was released in February of 2016.

Conacher says even B.C.'s lobbyist registry is not enough.

While lobbyists must register and list what they want from the B.C. government, they can also donate money ad nauseam.

"So it's tracked and it's disclosed but it's still unlimited and it's still huge sums of money and it's from companies and other interests that the party leaders know exactly what those companies want — so it's still corrupting ," said Connacher.

It's all legal

International democracy watchers like Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch says problematic political funding practices are often legal.

"If tomorrow a government legalizes paying bribes to people and they just don't call it bribes — they just call it extra salary payments — it doesn't negate the effect it has," said Ganesan.

He describes how loosened finance rules in U.S. elections over the past decade have caused mass change.

A panoply of problems have arisen with Super PACS, the independent political action committees which are able to spend unlimited amounts independent of individual candidates, which he believes helped drive a polarized political agenda.

Ganesan says the U.S. is an extreme example of where unchecked campaign financing can lead and urges Canadians to ponder the result of letting the fattest international chequebooks peddle unchecked influence over public policy.

B.C., despite having one of the toughest conflict of interest laws on paper, is among the lax provinces that still allow unlimited contributions and do not hold a hard line when it comes to perceived conflicts. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)