This morning I had the honour of standing and speaking in support of Bill 3, the Election Amendment Act, 2017. Finally, the Bill to “Ban Big Money!”
I’m very proud to rise and take my place in this debate on one of the most overdue pieces of legislation that has ever been tabled in this House.
Over the past year, I have been speaking with British Columbians about this issue. Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the B.C. Greens unilaterally deciding to stop accepting corporate and union donations. We argued that leaders need to talk less and show people through their actions what they stand for.
A year later, with a minority government, we’re finally seeing our government show that same leadership by taking action to completely reform our campaign finance laws. As in the campaign, it’s critical to understand what’s truly at the core of this issue: trust.
For 16 years, there has been a growing pessimism about those interests our government represented. This pessimism grew with every fundraising event, where corporations or unions or wealthy individuals would pay thousands if not tens of thousands for the appearance of special access to decision-makers. It grew with every decision that was made that seemed to be counter to the interests of British Columbians, but a company who also happened to be a donor would benefit. It grew as every jurisdiction in Canada facing similar pessimism, facing similar challenges from their constituents about who they were actually serving, took action — every jurisdiction except for British Columbia.
Does this mean every decision that was being made had a price tag attached to it? Certainly not. But that nagging question backed up by an unlimited flow of money from private interests cast a shade over critical decisions, cast doubt and cynicism over the most important provincial debates.
Frankly, I do not understand how any government would allow the trust of the people it governs to be eroded in this way. In the 21st century with the changes to our economy and our society, there is nothing that is more important than ensuring that we have the trust of British Columbians. Earning the trust of British Columbians is going to require us to trust them, and we demonstrate that through our actions.
For months, indeed years, an overwhelming number of British Columbians wanted this House to limit the influence of special interests through money. The previous government ignored British Columbians. Even in the face of criticism from around the world, the previous government put their head down and stubbornly pushed ahead. Those actions, that stubbornness, eroded the trust of British Columbians, and we must rebuild it.
We have huge mountains to climb in front of us — automation, the changing nature of work, climate change, demographic changes. Any one of these issues will necessitate a government capable of moving decisively to take on new challenges and to create new opportunities. But to attempt to do so in the shadow of a public that doesn’t trust the government, this is something all of us in this House must confront.
Government must be agile. Allowing special interests to use their money and their influence to protect the status quo limits the flexibility and the agility of that government, which the government needs to develop forward-looking public policy to benefit all British Columbians. Protecting the way it was ignores the way it is and blinds to us the possibility of the way it could be.
The reforms contained in this bill are of the single most important reforms that we can do in this regard. There is no question that money influences decisions and that this bill ends some of the most egregious practices that were permitting the undue access of the wrong kind of money.
That said, I need to be true to my journey to this House. Four years ago, I considered standing as an independent candidate. Since that time, I’ve made a choice that the B.C. Greens best represent my values and the future I want for this province; however, others might make a different decision.
I believe this House needs to be accessible to all British Columbians, and currently, it is not. I had many discussions with former independent members from Cariboo South and Delta South, and the obstacles facing independent candidates are great, discouraging all but the most ambitious. I pause here to mention this, because campaign and candidate financing is one area that needs to be more welcoming to future independents. But it is only one of many aspects to truly make this House more accessible to partisan and non-partisan candidates — future members alike.
When we approached this legislation, we had five core principles that we were looking for.
First, we wanted to eliminate the influence of special interests in B.C. elections. This meant the complete removal of all forms of corporate and union influence, including in-kind contributions. This bill accomplishes exactly that by ensuring only a resident of British Columbia can donate to political parties. This is a monumental shift away from the embedded system that was so reliant on corporate and union donations.
We also wanted to see the influence of existing corporate and union donations that have already been given limited to the greatest extent possible. While we are supportive of what’s in the bill — that they cannot be used in the next election’s campaign, period — we’re exploring every way possible to further restrict its use in the period between now and the next election.
Second, we wanted to see B.C. have one of the lowest contribution limits in the country. It’s very important to me and to my caucus colleagues that British Columbia makes up for lost time by adopting one of the lowest individual contribution limits in the country. A $1,200 limit, or $100 a month, puts British Columbia second only to Quebec, which has a limit of $100 and is heavily reliant on public financing.
As part of this change, we will also see a new allowance regime introduced to our province. While the B.C. Liberals want to spin this as some sort of new invention, when we look across Canada and, indeed, the developed world, we see just how lazy, utterly lazy, this critique really is. Six other provinces in Canada have public financing built into their systems — including Ontario, that dealt with its own fundraising scandals and responded with similar reforms.
Across the world, we can see that most OECD countries have some form of public financing, including Britain, Japan, Germany and France. In fact, the OECD published a report on campaign financing that explicitly points to the beneficial role of public financing and how it plays in creating a level playing field and limiting the potentially corrosive impact that unregulated private contributions can have.
Furthermore, it is British Columbians who will be choosing — through who they choose to cast their vote for during an election — who receives their share of the public allowance. In this way, the public financing advanced in this legislation increases the value of each individual vote.
I’m baffled by the bombastic claims of the former Minister of Finance in question period, that British Columbians are being forced to pay for something they didn’t support, when in reality, it’s exactly the opposite. Then again, a lot has baffled me over the last decade and more. I welcome the debate and discussion on this section of the bill. But let’s try to incorporate some real facts into this discussion, not just making things up as we go along.
Third, we wanted to see the overall spending limits reduced. I don’t believe that the increasing cash being used in election periods, whether from a political party or third-party advertiser, was being used to better inform the debate. Instead, we saw more attack ads and more smears.
In this past election, the now opposition paid to have a truck mounted with attack ads follow another party around wherever they went. For me, this was a new low in British Columbia politics. Speaking of shame, yesterday me and my colleagues were exhorted on how to hang our heads in shame. Yet this is one of the most shameful examples of everything people fear politics has become, funded by a system that allowed unlimited donations from any source.
That a party had enough money to pay for this kind of trolling — the troll truck — instead of engaging British Columbians on the substantive differences between parties only made me more certain that our spending limits needed work. I would love to see the roughly 25 percent reduction in spending we see both at the riding level and at the provincial level with political parties taken even further, but this legislation is a huge step forward.
Fourth, we wanted to ensure that as we reform the campaign finance laws for political parties, we are closing loopholes to avoid a U.S.-style super-PAC system, where money flows to unaccountable third parties. One of the potential side effects of limiting contributions and spending with political parties was the creation of third-party groups acting on behalf of a party’s interests with limited regulation.
At all times, we must protect free speech, especially in an election when citizens are most engaged in evaluating different questions and different issues. However, allowing the same corrosive money to influence elections through other channels would undermine what we wanted to accomplish with campaign finance reform. We can see this in the United States, where super PACs act as a donation clearing house, paying for ads and resources for candidates with little accountability.
Some of the most comprehensive changes in this bill concern third-party advertising, which, at first glance, appears to address many of the concerns that my colleagues and I have.
Finally, we felt it was critical that the legislation was tabled early in this session. The B.C. Greens made campaign finance reform a top priority in the campaign and in the formation of this minority government. We will always make policy that increases trust in government a priority. Changing the most outdated campaign finance laws in the country was one of the most important things that could be done to show through action that a minority government is better able to implement good public policy.
We had almost two decades of majority governments that, for personal political reasons, chose to not take any action. This is the first minority government in over 70 years, and one of the first bills to be tabled in this House is the bill to reform the finance laws. This is how we will earn back the trust that has been so squandered in the last several years.
My colleagues across the aisle here want to confuse British Columbians about this bill. They want you to forget that for the past 16 years, in every legislative session that went by with a B.C. Liberal government, they made a choice not to limit the flow of corporate and union donations. They chose not to put a cap on personal donations. They chose to hold fundraisers in Alberta with industry that wanted to do business in our province.
By my count, that is 22 sittings of this Legislature, where they could’ve chosen to bring forward reforms. This was their choice. This is their record. This is what is finally changing with this minority government.
So I am very happy to support this legislation and look forward to the continued discussions that will take place in the weeks ahead.