The Current

B.C. Liberals face heat over 'cash-for-access' fundraising ahead of election

B.C. is being called the "Wild West" of political fundraising. The province's unique rules have allowed the B.C. Liberal Party to rake in massive amounts of cash.
It's election season in B.C., and the province's Liberal party is facing heat for raking in money with "cash-for-access" events. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

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With voters in B.C. heading to the polls in May, one of the major issues taking shape in the first days of the campaign is political fundraising.

The governing Liberals already faced a lot of heat for so-called "cash-for-access" private events that critics and political opponents say may give undue political influence to wealthy donors.

"Cash for access" involves donors paying thousands of dollars to attend dinners or golf tournaments to rub shoulders with political leaders. The private events have been particularly lucrative for the B.C. Liberals.

According to Elections B.C. data, the majority of money raised by the party in 2016 came from such events.

Maclean's journalist Nancy Macdonald says the events have turned into the "Wild West" of political fundraising.

"Any person or company or government can donate as much money as they want as often as they want from anywhere in the country and indeed from anywhere in the world," Macdonald tells The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

She says the B.C. Liberals raised $13 million last year, and $33 million since the last provincial election.

"That's more than any other governing party, in any other province, was able to raise last year. It's 13 times what the Quebec Liberals raised. It's six times what the governing party in Alberta raised," Macdonald says, adding that Ontario has three times more residents than B.C. 
B.C. NDP leader John Horgan says if elected, one of his first orders would be tabling legislation 'to ban big money' in B.C. politics. (The Canadian Press / Chad Hipolito)

Yet the Ontario Liberals only raised half of what the B.C. Liberals did.

"It's just completely out of scale."

And the Liberals are not alone. The B.C. NDP raised $6 million through similar events last year.

The reason B.C. is considered a Wild West for political fundraising is because most other political jurisdictions in Canada — including Ontario — have much stricter rules, including outright bans on "cash-for-access" events.

The B.C. Liberals point out that "cash-for-access" events is legal in the province. Liberal leader Christy Clark's government was already releasing real-time reports of political donations, and she is promising further reforms if re-elected.

Executive director Dermod Travis of Integrity BC — a non-profit group working to restore public trust in elected officials — is dubious.

"It's cute sloganeering on their part, quite frankly," Travis tells Chattopadhyay, pointing to a $5,000/plate dinner Clark attended in January.

"She would not tell the media who was at the dinner, and fell back on her real-time jargon/slogan/promise that it will all come out in two weeks."

Travis says the details were never released, explaining that the government has never connected its real-time donations list to specific "cash-for-access" events.

"The media in British Columbia, and myself, we have to play guessing games to try to figure out who's there."

Travis hopes for tighter rules in place for whoever forms the next government.

According to Andrew Wilkinson, former minister of advanced education in B.C.'s last government, fundraising dinners are an ingrained part of B.C.'s political culture going back 40 years. 
Andrew Wilkinson says if fundraising laws are tightened, he would like to see NGOs and private foundations held to the same disclosure requirements. (Province of British Columbia)

Wilkinson, who is now the provincial Liberal candidate in the riding of Vancouver-Quilchena, says all political parties host parties, admitting to an annual dinner he hosts for $225/plate.

"It's a way for parties to raise money and I think the key point to get across here is if the parties aren't raising the money and are accountable to the ballot box, these funds go elsewhere," Wilkinson tells Chattopadhyay.

"If the parties aren't running the fundraising, it's going to go through third-party channels and it's going to get very, very nasty."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins and Sujata Berry.