COMMENT: B.C. Election Act--time to start from scratch
When the B.C. Court of Appeal struck down the government’s not-so-subtle attempt to stifle citizens with its ill-advised “gag” law this month, it was only a partial victory.
Regrettably, the Court never had the chance to consider the multitude of contradictions and loopholes that exist in the B.C. Election Act, most of which are the result of shoddy legislative maintenance.
Lacking the political courage to overhaul the act and bring it into the 21st century, B.C. MLAs instead amended it piecemeal, seemingly blind at any given point to the world around them, and often indifferent to the constitutional rights of British Columbians.
By copying and pasting bits and pieces of legislation from other jurisdictions – with different electoral rules – some of the amendments make a mockery of legislative oversight.
For instance, the B.C. legislature virtually copied and pasted Canada’s definition of “election advertising” into the act, without giving Ontario’s definition any consideration; even though Ontario may be more on point as it excludes issue-based advertising, thus allowing community groups and charities to continue their work during an election without fear of breaking the law.
Or consider the rules that govern political donations in B.C. The sky’s the limit when it comes to donations, who they come from, and where they originate.
So no surprise that unions and big business have donated over $50 million to the party operations of the NDP and Liberals since 2005.
One of those donors – Goldcorp – can’t give a nickel to a political party at the federal level, but nothing stopped the company from giving $210,000 to the B.C. Liberals in 2011.
If you live in Timbuktu and want to donate to the B.C. Work Less Party, write out that cheque. In fact, the U.S. owner of a landfill in Washington State did just that for the re-election campaign of Port Coquitlam’s mayor last year, who was also the chair of Metro Vancouver’s waste management committee at the time.
Because what really has politicians’ knickers in a knot isn’t obscene donations or foreign donors, it’s election spending, but only when it’s money being spent by someone other than themselves.
A provincial candidate can spend $70,000 during an election, without limit before it.
However, the local Rotary Club can’t spend more than $3,000, even if it’s on an ad discussing the benefits of school lunch programs.
So what’s a citizen to do if that $3,000 third-party spending limit stands in the way of getting their message out? Find a chum, form a political party, run a candidate and mystically that limit is now $5.5 million.
Just as it takes two to tango, in B.C. it takes the same number to form a political party. Running candidates? Optional, as long as the party runs two candidates every other time out.
In fact, one of B.C.’s 27 registered political parties hasn’t run a candidate since 2005, held a political convention in that time or even has a listed telephone number, but boasts over $2 million in assets.
While B.C. MLAs are diligent at keeping an eye out for their own electoral self-interest, the same can’t be said for their attitude towards their municipal cousins.
In races for city halls across the province, it’s a free-for-all. No limits on donations or campaign spending. And no limits on that Rotary Club, even if it tells voters who to vote for.
Goldcorp may have been the largest single donor to a provincial party last year, but their gift was chump change compared to Rob Macdonald’s $960,000 donation to the Vancouver NPA, a party that spent $2.5 million to win two seats on Council.
So what about voters lists in local elections? Optional. At least 67 B.C. municipalities couldn’t be bothered to use one last time out. Surely, the sanctity of the right to vote is one of the cornerstones of a fair election.
Yet, despite these anomalies, somehow B.C. still ends up with a government every time out and city halls end up with mayors and councillors. But maybe it escaped the government’s attention that in virtually every election fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote.
Maybe it has something to do with citizens losing confidence in the process.
And if British Columbians don’t have faith in the very legislation that elects our officials, how can they ever have confidence in the decisions that these individuals make once they’re elected?
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.