Election campaign financing rules were tampered with in BC during Bingogate
The way politicos spend money on election campaigns is not a particularly sexy subject for most voters. It's people who watch governments and elected officials closely – like newspaper reporters, bloggers and political junkies – who seem to revel in the numbers most. When we write on CityCaucus.com, for example, about the fact that Vision Vancouver is taking forever to disclose who is financing their current political operations, or who owns their debt, and who donated to their fundraiser last autumn, it rarely garners much response from readers.
The recent proposed changes by the Province's Local Government Elections Task Force signal some important steps in the right direction to reduce the so-called "wild west" aspect of municipal elections. The task force's key recommendations include:
- Establish expense limits for all campaign participants (e.g. electors, elector organizations and third party advertisers)
- Regulate third party advertisers, requiring them to register and disclose expenses and contributions
- Ban anonymous contributions
- Require sponsorship information on all election advertising
- Shorten the time for filing campaign finance disclosure statements to 90 days post election
- Establish a central role for Elections BC in enforcement of campaign finance rules and in making campaign finance disclosure statements electronically accessible
- Establish a separate Act for campaign finance rules in local elections
When it comes to expense limits, the devil will be in the details. Currently running for office in cities and municipalities is far too expensive, while at the same time the amount of money needed to tip the balance in several local elections seems relatively small. Shortening the time frame for disclosure is a good idea, but it's critical that it is accompanied by severe penalties for failing to comply.
As we've pointed out, Vision Vancouver have not complied with the rules clearly laid out in the Vancouver Charter regarding continuous disclosure. Section 62.1 of the Charter is titled Duty to file supplementary reports:
A supplementary report must be filed with the City Clerk within 30 days after the financial agent, or the candidate, elector organization or campaign organizer for whom a disclosure statement was filed, becomes aware that...
(a) report the new information in accordance with the requirements of section 62
Section 62 is the part of the act that basically says if you received any money for your campaign, you must report it:
A disclosure statement must include the following in relation to the election campaign of the candidate, elector organization or campaign organizer:
(a) the total amount of campaign contributions;
In 2007, Vision Vancouver's campaign financial agent Geoff Meggs trotted out that his party had gone "beyond" the requirements of the Charter by disclosing who paid off their $200,000 campaign debt. In his Wednesday Vancouver Courier story, even reporter Mike Howell repeats Vision's inaccurate spin:
Since Vision was founded more than five years ago, the party has made additional disclosures not required by law. It disclosed names and dollar amounts related to paying off its 2005 election debt.
Actually, they were required by law, and Vision are in contravention of that law today by not reporting who gave them money – at their fall fundraiser, for example – within 30 days.
Perhaps the biggest weakness in our system of election financing relates to how we can validate who really gives money to our elected officials. If you read our Know Your Donor series of posts from last year, you might be left wondering how some folks can afford to give so much of their hard-earned dosh toward an election campaign. In one case we discovered what amounted to an office intern working for a developer who wrote a $10,000 cheque; when we called to follow up the donor had left the country.
One area of particular concern surrounds charities. Some of us will remember the infamous Bingogate (see CBC archive video) where a charity was set up by a key BC NDP operative Dave Stupich – his Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society. The charity was used to funnel and launder donations to the NDP party, and it did so successfully for many years.
In a recent report on CityCaucus.com we mentioned how Vision Vancouver board member David Eaves described the amount of criminality relating to charities in Canada today. $3.2 billion of tax revenue is lost by the Canadian government annually to fraudulent charities. The connection to charities and politics should not be lost on us, as the potential for abuse didn't go away when Dave Stupich was charged.
We should be glad for the scrutiny of our local elections by Minister Bennett's committee, and the fine reporting by Daphne Bramham, Lori Culbert and Chad Skelton over at the Vancouver Sun. The latter's campaign donations database is a good tool we can all make reference to. But there must be more onus on those running election campaigns to be squeaky clean.
Whether it's a fraudulent use of charitable funds, the lack of timely disclosure, or not enough enforcement of penalities for abuse, there are many ways that our electoral system must secure itself against fraud. Thanks to the internet, open data applications and some dogged reporting by a few, those improvements might be on the way.
- post by Mike