News / Vancouver

‘Huge loophole’ allows B.C. political gifts to be hidden—until after election

Donations to politicians are already unlimited in B.C., even from out-of-province. But if you’re shy, there’s an easy way to bypass the publicity.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark speaks while taking questions from reporters after addressing the Council of Forest Industries convention in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday April 7, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark speaks while taking questions from reporters after addressing the Council of Forest Industries convention in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday April 7, 2017.

The B.C. Liberals are to return nearly $175,000 in improper political donations, according to Elections B.C., while their New Democrat opposition are handing back nearly $11,000 such gifts.

But a “huge loophole” in British Columbia’s election laws may have allowed corporations and unions in B.C. to keep their hefty donations out of the public eye — at least until long after the May 9 election is over.

Related stories:

According to a government transparency watchdog, B.C. voters should ask every would-be MLA one question at campaign stops and all-candidate forums: “Will you disclose your donors before election day,” suggested Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch. “Then watch them all squirm.”

The reason for the question, he said, is that under B.C.’s already lax donations rules — which permit unlimited donations, donors outside Canada, and $3,000 in anonymous gifts per candidate — individual candidates don’t have to reveal who gave them money until three months after every election.

It’s in contrast to the annual reporting requirements for parties and riding associations.

“Millions of dollars of donations may be hidden from voters until after election day,” argued Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher in a phone interview. “But voters have a right to know who bankrolled election candidates before they vote.

“Voters have the right to know; they should ask and insist disclosure happens.”

Conacher said he’s concerned because of the millions that have flooded into B.C. politics since the last election, with real estate developers and unions topping the list — supporting the B.C. Liberals and B.C. NDP respectively — with at least $13.5 million given since 2005.

The next most generous industry donors include oil and gas, forestry, mining, and construction. Combined, those sectors gave more than $20 million, almost entirely to the B.C. Liberals.

On March 10, the RCMP’s Sensitive Investigations Unit, part of force’s Federal Serious and Organized Crime division, began investigating “allegations of indirect contributions and other potential contraventions of the Election Act” — after the Globe and Mail reported that lobbyists had donated to the B.C. Liberals in order to gain access to government, and alleged they were then illegally reimbursed by their corporate clients.

“Since April 2016, when we filed our ethics complaint and the Globe and Mail first broke the story of cash-for-access, anyone who wanted to hide a donation would have known what a big issue it would become,” Conacher argued. “(They) had an incentive to route donations to candidates, knowing those donations would not have to be disclosed before election day.

“They’re likely all bankrolled by big money donations, and whoever donated will likely have sway over them if they get elected. But no one will know who they are until 90 days after the election.”

Last month, a Forum Research poll found that seven-in-ten British Columbians want the province to ban corporate and union donations.

According to Elections B.C.’s finance reporting guide for constituency associations, detailed donor lists aren’t required annually but only every four years — after each election: “The Election Act requires all registered constituency associations represented by candidates to file election financing reports within 90 days after General Voting Day.”

And in local ridings’ annual reports, they don’t have to list donors, but simply “the total value of all political contributions received during the year, from all sources,” including “permitted anonymous contributions accepted at functions.”

The non-partisan agency that oversees provincial elections also states that the law does not limit the amount of provincial political contributions that can be made by a contributor,” Elections B.C. said on its website. “The only contribution limits established under the Election Act are for anonymous contributions.”

The B.C. NDP and Greens have pledged to ban corporate and union donations if they win on May 9, with the Green Party refusing such gifts unilaterally ahead of the election.

The B.C. Liberals have committed to reforms requiring parties to report their donors publicly in real-time, and promised "independent panel" to review political donations in B.C. — which Conacher called a “system of legalized bribery” out of step with other provinces.

More on Metronews.ca