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Lobbyists among oil industry's $5M B.C. political donations: study

As a scandal grows over allegations some companies have funneled contributions through their lobbyists, new study uncovers fossil fuel sector overlaps.

B.C.'s deputy premier and natural gas minister Rich Coleman, seen in this photo during a press conference on Feb. 15 in Victoria, told reporters this week that BC Liberals "have nothing that we have done wrong, nothing to hide from any inquiries Elections BC has.”

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

B.C.'s deputy premier and natural gas minister Rich Coleman, seen in this photo during a press conference on Feb. 15 in Victoria, told reporters this week that BC Liberals "have nothing that we have done wrong, nothing to hide from any inquiries Elections BC has.”

As a political scandal continues to brew in Victoria over donations to the BC Liberals by corporate lobbyists, just two months ahead of the May 9 election, a veteran researcher in that city has zoomed in on one industry’s own attempts to influence the province’s government: fossil fuels.

On Wednesday, University of Victoria sociology professor Bill Caroll published the first results from two years he’s spent sifting through thousands of political donations and lobbying records — and the results reveal extensive overlaps between the two activities.

“These very large corporations obviously have the ear of the government and are giving substantial funds, and quite the volume of lobbying,” he told Metro in a phone interview. “It works out to 14 meetings per business day over the six-year period we tracked, and over $5 million.

“We were able to track all that and map out a small world of corporate influence at the very top of the political power structure. It’s very crowded at the top.”

His study, titled Mapping Political Influence, is the first release from a six-year research project funded by the federal Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

He co-authored the peer-reviewed report with the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) B.C., and the Alberta-based Parkland Institute, and examined corporate donations and lobbying to both the New Democrats and BC Liberals. Many oil and gas companies donated to both, although the majority to Premier Christy Clark’s governing party.

On Monday, Elections B.C. revealed it was investigating large donations made to the BC Liberal party from corporate lobbyists, after explosive allegations in the Globe and Mail last weekend that lobbyists were being illegally repaid for making personal donations.

The allegations add fuel to ongoing criticism of what Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher told Metro “amounts to a system of legalized bribery” in the province.

“It’s certainly reasonable for the public to think that’s going to translate into a level of casual access, if not a more formal level of influence,” said Shannon Daub, CCPA B.C.’s associate director, in a phone interview. “Whether or not we can say with certainty this donation or this lobbying effort had this exact influence on public policy, it undermines our confidence that the government is able to act in the public interest.

“And from what we’ve seen from the recent revelations, clearly that is a culture and a sense that you do actually have to pay up in order to have access. That’s just not healthy in a democracy.”

In the Legislature on Wednesday, the B.C. government defended its rules for lobbyists. Attorney General Suzanne Anton said her government’s 2002 Lobbyists Registration Act is “one of the strongest regimes in Canada.”

“British Columbians should have confidence in the commitments that we've made, the steps that we've taken, so there is a strong lobbyist regime in the province so that people can know who the lobbyists are and who they're lobbying,” she said.

A day earlier, deputy premier Rich Coleman told reporters, “We have nothing that we have done wrong, nothing to hide from any inquiries Elections BC has.”

According to the report, Coleman faced the most lobbying of any Cabinet minister over six years, with the 10 biggest oil and gas donors making 733 contacts according to the Lobbyist Registry.

Clark came second with 618 such fossil fuel contacts, and energy and mines minister Bill Bennett with 437.

Those top 10 donating companies include ones hoping for the province to approve their energy projects, many of which have faced protests. Seven of those were also top lobbyists, the report found.

Meanwhile, according to the advocacy group Dogwood Initiative, Texas-based Kinder Morgan and associated firms of its Trans Mountain Expansion Project donated $771,168 to the BC Liberals prior to their approval of the controversial pipeline on Jan. 11.

“Dogwood has written to (Elections B.C.) to request that Elections BC scrutinize donations made to both the BC Liberals and BC NDP by individuals connected to Kinder Morgan,” a post on the group’s website stated.

There is no evidence Kinder Morgan has broken any laws, however, or whether the company is even being investigated.

The company is also the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed Jan 31 in the B.C. Supreme Court by Democracy Watch and the environmental group PIPE UP Network.

The lawsuit filings alleged that the decision was “tainted by reasonable apprehension of bias arising from … payments made to the Liberal Party of British Columbia by Kinder Morgan and oil shippers that intend to use the pipeline, together with payment to the Premier of British Columbia of an annual salary of approximately $50,000.00 by the Liberal Party of British Columbia.”

Clark announced she would stop receiving the partisan top-up to her $190,000 taxpayer salary when it came under media scrutiny earlier this year.

Unlike the federal government, the province doesn’t restrict the amount individuals, companies or unions are allowed to donate to political parties or candidates. Anyone can donate, even from outside B.C.

“Putting all these pieces together, it’s a worrisome picture that really suggests a rather compromised democracy,” Carroll said, “in which certain corporate interests obviously have an inside track and the ear of the government.”

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