Bill 15 a game changer for 2018 civic election in New Westminster

After years of debate and countless media headlines, it appears the “wild west” of municipal political fundraising is about to get a big shakeup. Yesterday the provincial government and both opposition parties unanimously passed third reading of a major overhaul in the way the 2018 civic election will be operated.

Bill 15 was introduced by the NDP government just prior to Halloween and it is intended to significantly reduce the influence both union and corporations have on our civic elections.

In New Westminster, the passing of this legislation could be rated as an 8.0 on the political Richter Scale. That’s because it may, and I emphasize “may”, change how much influence the District Labour Council (DLC) will have regarding who makes it over the finish line on election night.

In the last election, all of the DLC slate of endorsed candidates topped the polls. They scooped up every council seat available leaving nary a single person in opposition – and won a majority on the school board.

The “machine” was so powerful it even meant top quality independent and popular candidates like Tej Kainth [she came up short by only a few hundred votes] and Catherine Cartwright were left on the sidelines once all the ballots were counted.

Hon. Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing

In 2018, let there be no doubt the political landscape will be radically changed. If you are a third party and conduct a phone bank or robocall, collect names of voters sympathetic to a particular group of candidates, you will no longer be able to simply share this information with them – unless you officially declare that as a campaign donation. Furthermore, if you are a union or corporation…this type of in-kind donation is now considered illegal.

Once all the dust settles, it means that anyone on the current council who may have relied on DLC operated phone banks, data collection and central campaign coordination will have to look elsewhere to find that support. The same applies to non-DLC candidates who utilized the resources of local businesses eagerly willing to provide discounted office rentals etc… With the passage of Bill 15, all of this activity is now strictly forbidden and against the law.

Legislation passed a couple of years ago by the previous BC Liberal government also puts in place strict campaign expense limits – something local politicians did not have to adhere to in 2014.

Todd Stone, MLA, BC Liberal Critic

During committee stage of Bill 15, BC Liberal leadership contender Todd Stone went toe to toe with the Hon. Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing regarding the fact that a lot of “off book” donations have an impact on who eventually gets elected.

“It’s not the traditional advertising per se that one thinks of that has the potential to significantly influence the outcome of an election. It’s all of the other kinds of efforts and supports that third parties provide. I think of polling. I think of surveys. I think of canvassing. I think of all kinds of effort that is often difficult to put a quantifiable value on. But inadvertently, it can — well, very directly, actually — influence the outcome of an election. You have a third-party organization that goes out there and does their own surveys or does their own door-knocking and then shares that information, in some form, with a candidate or an elector organization of their choice. There’s no quantification of that whatsoever, in terms of the value that that provides.”

In response to another question posed by Stone about the potential influence of third parties, Robinson couldn’t be any more clear in her response:

“I want to remind the member that when we’re talking about third parties, third-party advertising, third parties need to be independent, so they can’t gather data and feed it to a particular candidate. Then they’re working for the candidate, and that’s a completely different frame.”

If I’m interpreting the legislation correctly, this also means provincial and federal political parties who have amassed very valuable voter intention databases will no longer be able to seamlessly share that information with their municipal cousins. This should also put an end to the practice of MLAs and MPs conducting mass “robocalling” just prior to an election day hoping to sway voters in one particular direction or another.

While I generally support Bill 15, I do have significant concerns regarding the self-financing provisions. Under the new legislation, candidates are now only allowed to contribute a maximum of $1200 toward their campaign.

A number of municipal candidates across the province [and in New Westminster] self-finance their campaign – which means they didn’t need to go cap-in-hand to labour unions or corporations to raise the necessary funds to put their name on the ballot.

Ironically, Bill 15 was intended to remove big money from civic campaigns – but it will have the unintended consequence of forcing candidates to approach developers, corporate and union leaders to help pay the bills. Granted, the cheque will now have to come from them [and/or their family members] personally rather than from their company/union.

As was noted in a recent Vancouver Courier column, Mike Klassen [full disclosure, he is also a colleague] writes an excellent piece on how it may also encourage even more “dark money” in civic politics.

The other major flaw is the fact that civic politicians must now adhere to strict campaign spending limits and severe restrictions on where they can raise their funds – but they are not on the same playing field as their provincial or federal counterparts. Donations to a municipal campaign are not tax deductible and local elector organizations are not eligible to receive taxpayer subsidies.

When I asked someone involved in provincial politics why Bill 15 excluded these generous provisions, the response came in a single word – “competition”.

“If they gave the same benefits to municipal politicians when it comes to tax receipts etc…they would have way more competition for a smaller pie of donors. Provincial politicians have provided for themselves a wonderful competitive advantage when it comes to raising funds compared to their municipal counterparts.”

In reference to Bill 15, the devil is most certainly in the details. While the legislation is well intended and the provincial NDP government deserves credit for both introducing it and getting it passed – only time will tell whether both the spirit and the letter of the law are adhered to in communities like New Westminster.

Regardless of what you think of Bill 15, it sets the stage for a dramatically different political landscape in New Westminster come the 2018 election.  Promising independent candidates who once faced the prospect of having to confront the mighty “DLC machine” may now have a slightly better chance of a victory on election night.