I rose to speak at second reading to Bill 15 (Local Elections Campaign Financing Amendment Act, 2017). Local government officials have been calling for the changes in this Bill for a long time and I am happy to support them!
Thank you. Wow. That never gets old.
I come to this House from local government. I was elected to the Central Saanich council table almost a decade ago for the first time. Many of our colleagues in this House have taken a similar path to becoming an MLA. It’s a great place to learn how to work with like- and different-minded people, to problem-solve and, ultimately, make a thoughtful, evidence-based, informed decision. Raising your hand or standing and being accounted for is actually a much more difficult act than it perhaps appears.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for our colleagues in local government. They are passionate about their communities, and they want the best. There is so much value to the respectful difference of opinion around a council table. I often said that it was our job to find a way to represent 16,000 differences of opinion in Central Saanich with a single yes or no vote. It is the diversity at the council table that reflects the diversity of our friends, our family, neighbours and neighbourhoods.
This House has a lot to learn from that. When we form these political tribes and consolidate power within them, effectively muting the diverse voices that exist to portray a strong political front in public, I’m not sure that the diversity of British Columbians is truly or fairly represented. In my mind, that is the most important reason why majority governments are problematic. Sure, they make our lives much easier, when we can turn over the responsibility of representing our constituents to a powerful party leader and ride the pine for the next four years. We are truly reflecting, but are we truly reflecting the diversity of British Columbia?
I had an exchange with a former colleague of mine from the Central Saanich days on Facebook yesterday. He was in Costa Rica, and I was in my office in the basement. I think he was probably in a warmer, better situation than I was in. But when we were elected to the Central Saanich council table, he was to be my nemesis. For the first couple of years, we did battle with each other across the table, until we realized our community was stronger if we allowed our differences to exist and, instead, worked together to move the community forward. So we focused on common ground. To this day, we have a place to discuss and debate differences in a mature, respectful way. My nemesis has become an important adviser to me.
It was the experience of running small, inexpensive campaigns that taught me I could be a more effective representative of the diversity of opinions in my community if I focused on quality interactions, integrity, trust, accountability and transparency rather than endless amounts of cash, newspaper ads and mailouts. The latter promotes closed-mindedness and unwillingness to work with others. It perpetuates the “I am right; you are wrong mentality” that we are all vulnerable to in this House.
I attended the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities in the Union of B.C. Municipalities conferences every year. I found them to be incredibly useful to share ideas across jurisdictions, to incubate ideas and to ensure that there aren’t 200 communities all trying to recreate the same wheel. This last UBCM was a special convention to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it was the very first convention that I attended as a member of this House.
While the relationship-building across local governments was always a highlight of my time at the AVICC and UBCM, there was always one major frustration. No matter how much work we did as local government officials to advance issues and solutions that were important to us and our communities, it felt like the provincial government did not hear them. Sure, we took them up on their offer to sit for 15 minutes and share our experience. But I often left those meetings feeling like the decision was made. The path was chosen, and the minds were closed.
Each time I sat through the final speech of the convention delivered by our Premier, I would listen for the important issues raised by the delegates, and yet I’d hear very little.
Instead, we were delivered a flowery speech ladened with the Premier’s agenda, the Premier’s priorities, and I would leave the convention disheartened by the disconnect between the two levels of government.
Ultimately, I am here today because I wanted that to change. I have promised the UCBM and my current and former colleagues in local government to never forget those days, to never forget that feeling of disheartenment. Whether it was the chastised B.C. Ferries report, ignored Strong Fiscal Future policy, derelict boats or urban ungulates, the provincial government has had a culture of ignoring the most important partners in creating vibrant, innovative province for the 21st century. That is local government.
When I was the interim leader of the B.C. Greens, a time when our party had scarce resources, I lobbied our staff to make sure that we attended the UBCM, that we were present and attentive to the needs of local leadership.
That is why I stand in this House today and offer my thanks to the minister and to the government. How local government elections are funded, how contributions are made — the amount of money in local elections is on the agenda today because our government decided it was a good idea to listen to the mayors, councillors, regional directors and trustees and to speed up a policy process that our local government elected officials have long been advocating for.
Without any doubt, this bill is an enormous step forward for local election financing in B.C. I’m very proud of the government for moving decisively on this issue and bringing this first round of changes before the 2018 election. For all the attention that the massive holes in our provincial financing laws received over the past couple of years, our local government elections have been just as bad if not worse. For too long, local elections have been allowed to be the black box of financing — no limits, limited disclosure requirements, donations from any source. This is not how you ensure a strong democracy.
Our caucus, the B.C. Green caucus, approached campaign financing reform with a number of objectives. First, we wanted to eliminate the influence of special interests in B.C. elections. This meant ensuring corporate and union donations of all kinds were banned, as were donations from foreign sources. Second, we wanted to see B.C. have the lowest contribution limits in the country. Third, we wanted to reduce the overall spending limits. And finally, we wanted to close loopholes to avoid U.S.-style super PACs, where money flows in from unaccountable third parties.
On some of these objectives, this bill is a massive success. A clear donation limit and new rules about who can donate are some of the most important changes that could have taken place. Others were taken up in legislation previously, including a bill in 2016 by the former government that introduced new spending limits for local elections.
One area I still want to better understand in committee is the disclosure regime that this bill establishes and how we are ensuring maximum transparency. However, I come back to the fact that this government had to move quickly to introduce legislation if changes were to be made before the 2018 election, a move I want to support in the strongest possible terms. Thank you, minister, for taking a bold step forward.
I hope the minister is open to considering this to be only a first step in local government reforms. The 2018 election will be an excellent opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t. I hope this House takes the opportunity following the 2018 local government elections to reflect on the outcomes, to bring forward additional changes, as needed, to complete the positive work that we have begun on this issue.
I hope that the UCBM would be an active partner in this process, gathering its membership’s feedback and helping the provincial government to continue to update our local election financing laws. I believe today that we send a strong message to local government officials that their important work at the UBCM is not in vain, that their collaboration, their spirit of innovation and creativity is not going to be ignored and that, as Ron and I came to understand, our province is far better off when the provincial and local governments are working together. HÍSW̱ḴE, Thank you.