The Provincial government appears poised to squander a rare opportunity for true reforms of financing for civic elections, with the next one in 2018, and implications for decades ahead.
The failure by the special legislative committee is disappointing. It is almost as if the proposed “rules” have been reverse-engineered to allow the dominant parties in the Metro Vancouver region to keep spending big bucks in elections (most of that money coming from corporate and union donations). The committee is proposing no meaningful controls. In fact, it almost appears as if the committee is encouraging the formation of new elector organizations throughout the province.
Is there an advantage for candidates running under the banner of a local political party? The answer to this question should be fairly self-evident. However, the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits decided to entirely sidestep this question, and did not recommend imposing additional spending limits on local political parties (“elector organizations”).
If the recommendations by the Special Committee are adopted by the BC Legislature and passed into law, then an elector organization running a partial slate of 22 candidates in Vancouver will be able to spend around $2.5 million in the 2018 civic elections (Vision ran 22 candidates in 2014). This high spending limit is achieved by centrally pooling the spending limits for all candidates running under the banner of the elector organization.
In 2018, an independent Councillor or Park Board candidate will be able to spend around $108,140. The proposed limit is a little higher for a School Board candidate, with a $108,800 spending cap (for Vancouver and the UBC lands). Mayoral candidates will be able to spend $211,180. In contrast, an elector organization running a full slate of candidates will be able to spend in excess of $3 million.
The draft municipal election spending limits legislation also does not address key areas of election finance reform. There are no donation limits and no ban on corporate or union donations. The candidate spending limits are much too high for large urban centres, especially considering that elector organizations will be able to pool resources from all of their candidates into one centrally managed campaign.
Two members of the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits had previously been elected to Vancouver City Council in 1993, running under the banner of an elector organization. It’s worth noting that only NPA and COPE candidates were elected at the time:
Independent candidates have not been elected to Vancouver City Council since 1988. It should be fairly self-evident that there is a gigantic elector organization advantage. Just how wide is the elector organization advantage? Consider the results for one of the candidates who ran for the Vancouver School Board in 1996 and 1999:
Allan Wong received 11,329 votes running as an independent in 1996 and was not elected. Three years later, Allan Wong ran with COPE was elected with 42,565 votes; he also received the most votes of any School Board Trustee.
The first step to being elected to office in Vancouver is to seek a nomination from an established local political party. For all practical purposes, independent candidates are not electable.
The main failure of the draft legislation for election spending limits is that it does not address the reality of big money campaigns in large urban centres that have elector organizations.
An open question is whether the draft legislation will essentially circumvent any attempts for meaningful election finance reform in Vancouver? Historically only two local political parties (Vision and the NPA) have been able to mount campaigns that exceeded $2 million apiece. Currently, a total of 23 out of the 27 elected officials belong to these two parties (12 for Vision, 11 for the NPA); the Greens hold the other 4 seats.
The best result for an independent candidate for City Council in 2014 was 8,192 for Lena Ling.
For the record, the following section is a direct quote from the Final Report of the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits, released on June 26, 2015:
Elector organization advantage
The Committee considered whether, in order for expense limits to reflect the principle of neutrality that it recommended in its first report, independent candidates should have a different expense limit amount. In some jurisdictions, especially where elector organizations are prevalent, it is very difficult for candidates to run independently (i.e. without the endorsement of an elector organization). This “elector organization advantage” is the result of the pooling of resources and economies of scale which are achieved by candidates running together as a slate. It can be seen primarily in larger jurisdictions such as Vancouver and Surrey.
In his presentation to the Committee, Don Pitcairn noted that independent candidates are at a serious disadvantage and recommended that a candidate who belongs to a slate should have a lower level of spending than a candidate who is running as an independent. Both the Cedar Party and the Green Party of Vancouver stated that independent candidates should have a greater expense limit at a public hearing during the first phase of the Committee’s mandate.
During their deliberations, Committee Members discussed the fact that the process for creating an elector organization is a straightforward one and that there are few barriers to forming an elector organization at any time. Any interested candidates are free to pursue forming an elector organization, if desired.
Committee Members also expressed concern that there may be possible issues under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that could arise in the event of different rules for independent and endorsed candidates.
The Committee concluded that the rules for local elections should be consistent with the rules for provincial elections whereby, in relation to expense limits, independent candidates and candidates who are members of political parties are treated the same.”
The Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits was composed of 8 MLAs, with 5 BC Liberal and 3 BC NDP members. All of the MLAs had previously been elected to municipal office. Five of the eight MLAs on the committee were from the Lower Mainland: Sam Sullivan (Vancouver) & Jenny Kwan (now MP for Vancouver East), Marvin Hunt (Surrey), Linda Reimer (Coquitlam) & Selina Robinson (Coquitlam).
History of elections in Vancouver, election results:
Vancouver’s Elected Representatives (Wayne Madden, 2003, no copyright)
$3 MILLION per municipal party (Vancouver) election spending ‘limit’ recommendation going to BC legislature. Huge gaps. (October 22, 2015, CityHallWatch)