Op-ed: Time to look at banning union and corporate donations in local elections

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By Selina Robinson, B.C. New Democrat spokesperson for local government

This Saturday, voters across the province head to the polls to cast their ballots in local government elections. Candidates in B.C.’s cities and towns have put in countless hours and raised a lot of money to be able to campaign and share their vision with voters. However, when it comes to campaign fundraising and spending, the playing field is far from level.

Corporate and union donations to political campaigns at both the provincial and local levels in B.C. can make up a large portion of a candidate’s financial resources. And often, donations from organizations that can cut a big cheque serve to increase the perceived risk of inappropriate influence.

A number of local governments, including the City of Vancouver, support the ability to ban these donations themselves for their own municipality. The Union of B.C. Municipalities has pushed the provincial government to help make these changes as well.

Unfortunately, when it comes to giving municipalities the power to make elections fairer and more transparent, the B.C. Liberal government knows what to say, but then does whatever it wants.

Last spring, the B.C. Liberals had the opportunity to do the right thing when some much-awaited changes to local government election financing laws were passed in the legislature. Sadly, the issue of banning corporate and union donations was cast aside.

When I brought forward an amendment during those debates to strengthen the proposed finance reform legislation that would allow cities to enact their own bans on corporate and union donations, the B.C. Liberals voted against it. They also voted against a motion brought forward by Independent MLA Vicki Huntington, and supported by New Democrats, to ban union and corporate donations at the municipal level altogether.

Interestingly, when now B.C. Liberal Justice Minister Suzanne Anton was a Vancouver city counsellor, she supported this ban. And yet, she joined her colleagues in voting down a widely-called for amendment that would help level the playing field and boost engagement among average citizens who’ve grown cynical with politics.

It is also important to note that the B.C. Liberals have been unsupportive of the New Democrat commitment to ban corporate and union donations at the provincial level – clearly because of who fills their own coffers.

New Democrats recognize that in some communities running in local elections has become quite costly. However, we believe that removing the perceived conflicts that come with large donations from unions and corporations would do much to enhance the fairness of elections. It’s quite simple: If you can’t vote, you can’t donate. Individual citizens, not institutions, should finance B.C.’s political process.

I plan to continue to push the B.C. Liberal government through this fall sitting of the legislature to finally stand up for good democracy and make the shift necessary to put individual citizens at the centre of our democracy.