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Vaughn Palmer: Backroom deal lets taxpayers provide 'big money' to politicos

VICTORIA — When New Democratic Party leader John Horgan took the wraps off his Get Big Money Out of Politics Act earlier this year, he was clear about what would be in the legislation if he won the election and also what would not be there.

The bill would put a stop to big money donations to political parties by unions and corporations, Horgan vowed.

But the New Democrats would not try to legislate a replacement system for party funding such as the direct cash payments in place in other jurisdictions.

Rather “the financing of the political process” would be sent to an outside panel, headed by the independent watchdog on the campaigns and elections, chief electoral officer Keith Archer.

Public financing — like the $2.25 per vote formula in place in Ontario — would be one option. Others would be considered as well.

Pressed on whether he personally favoured the direct dollar subsidy, Horgan insisted that on the contrary: “I have no opinion on that.” He also said in one interview that taxpayers would not be on the hook.

Horgan’s disavowals, combined with the text of the legislation, provided sufficient cover to get the New Democrats through the election and into the subsequent round of brokerage with the Green party.

The May 29 NDP-Green accord reiterated the commitment to ban corporate, union and big money donations and also to strike a review of other issues regarding “campaign finance and the Election Act.”

There matters stood until Monday, when the New Democrats tabled their Election Amendment Act.

“This is what we campaigned on,” Horgan assured reporters. But it was nothing of the kind in one critically important respect, as premier I-have-no-opinion must have recognized.

Gone, to be sure, were corporate, union, and big money donations from individuals. But gone as well was Horgan’s pre-election promise of an independent panel to start from scratch to come up with a substitute system of campaign financing.

Instead big money was back in a big way, thanks to provisions in the bill that would deliver more than $30 million in taxpayer cash to the major political parties over the next five years.


Direct cash from all taxpayers that is. Which is different from the tax deductions available to individuals who chose to give money to political parties, the way some folks donate to charities.

All this is dressed up as a “transitional allowance … intended to help political parties transition to the new campaign finance rules.” But it will be an expensive transition for provincial taxpayers and a well-funded one for the parties.

Annual payments start next year and continue to the year after the next election. Each party will get $2.50 for each vote it garnered in the last provincial election, dropping to $1.75 in 2022. Which works out to almost $20 million over the five years.

Plus there’s a second sent of payments, totalling another $11 million, framed as a set of “reimbursements” for money spent in the 2021 election.

Payments to each party can only be estimated, because the final year payout and the campaign reimbursement will be based on money spent and votes cast in 2021.

Presuming the outcome were roughly proportional, the B.C. Liberals would be in line for maybe $12 million over the five years and the New Democrats and Greens could split as much as $18 million.

As to the source point for this unexpected windfall, Attorney-General David Eby gave the game away when he indicated the much revised bill had emerged from consultations between the New Democrats and their partners in power-sharing, the Greens.

So the Greens and NDP sat down in the backrooms and came up with a plan — never shared with the voters — to pay themselves as much as $18 million over five years.

No wonder a beaming Green leader Andrew Weaver agreed to share the public platform with Premier John Horgan in hailing this “historic” piece of legislation. It certainly was historic for the Greens, in terms of the cash payment from the provincial treasury.

“The Greens just won the lottery,” as one of my colleagues remarked.

Yes, but how often does the holder of the winning ticket get to pick it himself and also have a hand in setting the size of the prize?

Weaver’s party stands to receive $2.8 million, just in the first four years of this backroom deal.

It was also telling that Horgan and Weaver both refused to take questions from reporters after their set piece speeches on the bill. Instead they left the question and answer session to Eby. He then proceeded to defer many of the questions from reporters to ministry staff, who we were not allowed to quote.

Not quite the approach one would expect on such an historic occasion. But perhaps the two party leaders are still working on their lines of defence for this arrangement, while waiting for any backlash to blow over.

The New Democrats and Greens do think they can get away with it, in large measure because they expect the B.C. Liberals to take their share of the largesse once the controversy subsides.

Opposition critic Andrew Wilkinson announced Monday he and his colleagues would vote against the parts of the bill that provide the taxpayer subsidies.

But he stopped well short of pledging that if the NDP-Green majority approves the funding anyway, the Liberals would refuse to take it on a matter of principle.



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