British Columbia·Analysis

Why limits on political donations don't necessarily have to be subsidized by tax dollars

A debate is raging around who should foot the bill for political parties. The B.C. Liberals say if restrictions were placed on union and corporate donations, it would be the taxpayer.

B.C. Liberals warn political donation limits could force taxpayers to cover the cost of political parties

B.C. Premier Christy Clark doesn't want taxpayers to fund political parties. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

At a time when B.C. Premier Christy Clark would rather talk about the economy and jobs, she is being pulled once again into a debate on campaign financing.

Adding further fuel to the fire, is the announcement this week by Elections BC that it is referring its investigation into political contributions to the B.C. Liberal party to the RCMP.

Critics have been pushing for years to ban union and corporate donations and end the so-called practice of "cash for access."

But when the government introduces new legislation on Monday, don't expect those critics to be thrilled, with the government expected instead to settle for real time disclosure.

"The system we have is not perfect," said Clark. "A worse system is one where the money is not given freely and people are forced to support political parties through their taxes."

Recruiting more individual donors

Christopher Cotton is not so sure a taxpayer system is the only alternative. The Queen's University professor and campaign financing expert says one option would be to increase the amount individuals can donate.

Unlike the United States and the nearly 320 million people who live there, British Columbia's population of 4.7 million poses challenges for political parties looking for people who want to contribute.

The B.C. Liberals are concerned a ban on union and political donations will prevent politicians like Christy Clark from speaking directly to voters. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

But Cotton says that doesn't mean the province should not consider pursuing a contribution system that relies on individuals instead of corporations or unions.

"Ultimately, it is entirely possible that it could work, and if it did work, it would be the first best outcome. It gets rid of the perception and possibility of corruption while engaging the voters very broadly," said Cotton.

The B.C. Liberals aren't willing to take that risk.

The party says campaigns are expensive and to raise enough money in order to be able to spend up to the $4.4 million cap during a 28 day election would require about 10 per cent of all the people who voted for the party in 2013 to donate $500 a year. 

The other option is that parties spend less during the election campaign. 

Cotton says there is currently far too much money involved in politics and even if a certain amount of money is needed to get the message out, that amount right now is too high. 

"The additional money that is spent, it is not clear by the academic literature what is actually coming out of this," added Cotton. "I do think you could get away with a lot less money in politics."

However, that could limit the day-to-day activities of political parties, which operate outside of the election cycle with donated funds.

Stricter rules in other provinces

Yet, other provinces have managed it.

Cotton says Quebec is seen as the Canadian leader in terms of campaign donation transparency, with a ban on union and corporate donations and an individual cap of $100 on individual donations. 

Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley put limits on individual donations in Alberta with requiring taxpayers to fund political parties. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Under that system, the government funds 75 per cent of the contributions to political parties with each elector in the province providing $1.50 per vote per year..

It also matches political donations and provides up to $250,000 per year in matching funding to the political party that received the individual donation.

When refuting Clark's argument, the B.C. NDP likes to point east of the Rockies to Alberta, which, like B.C., provides tax credits to political donors and limits individual donations to $4,000 in a calendar year..

"When we look at Alberta, for example, where an NDP government introduced a cap, the taxpayers don't pay any more money to fund the political system," said NDP MLA David Eby.

One thing is for sure. No matter how this debate turns out, nothing is likely to be decided that will change the way money is raised and spent for the May 9, 2017 provincial election.