News / Vancouver

Real estate industry provided 75% of Vision Vancouver's by-election campaign donations

Numbers illustrate why new campaign finance rules are needed, says watchdog

Mayor Gregor Robertson at Emery Barnes Park on May 25, 2017. Robertson's Vision Vancouver raised $278,125 for a recent by-election, $205,000 of which came from property developers.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

Mayor Gregor Robertson at Emery Barnes Park on May 25, 2017. Robertson's Vision Vancouver raised $278,125 for a recent by-election, $205,000 of which came from property developers.

Campaign finance filings show that 75 per cent of recent donations to Vancouver’s ruling civic party, Vision Vancouver, came from just one industry.

Real estate and construction combined makes up a quarter of B.C.’s gross domestic product, but in the 2017 Vancouver by-election, the sector played an outsized role in funding Vision, the party in power since 2008.

Just 10 property developers donated $205,000 out of the total $278,125 raised. The party spent $257,838 on the campaign.

According to a government finance watchdog group, Vancouver voters should be paying attention.

“They’re not just really nice chummy friends,” said Dermod Travis, executive director of Integrity B.C.

“They actually have an interest in cutting checks of this amount and supporting a civic party that, based on past results, will be there for them in the future.”

Many industries have a stake in government policy, or must apply for licences or permits from various levels of government to do business. The real estate sector interacts with municipal government frequently: councils decide what land will be rezoned for denser development and developers must apply for development permits in order to build.

In Vancouver’s highly speculative real estate market, where land values are sky-high, those decisions can mean the difference between profit and loss.

According to B.C. Elections filings, donations between $35,000 and $10,000 were made by Coromandel Properties, Amacon, Onni, Shato Holdings, Rize Alliance, Ceetu Homes, Westbank, Delta Land Development, Hollyburn Properties and Concord Pacific.

Many of these developers are affected by city decisions, including council’s recent approval of Westbank’s application for a rezoning at Burrard and Nelson to build a 57-storey condo tower, Onni’s upcoming development of the Pearson Dogwood site into 2,700 housing units, and Concord Pacific’s ownership of land that will be affected by council’s decision to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

Developer cash doesn't always mean a successful campaign however.

Indeed, Travis is struck by just how much money was spent to lose the by-election: Vision’s council candidate came in fifth place, behind the NPA (who raised $53,700), independent Jean Swanson ($51,408) the Greens ($33,620) and OneCity ($51,217). Vision did manage to elect three school board trustees in the by-election.

“I think when people realize how large some of these checks are and who they are from, they will be appalled,” Travis said. “I would not want to be in (Mayor Gregor Robertson’s) shoes trying to explain why I took over $205,000 from property developers to get the finish that I got in a by-election.”

Robertson has announced he will not run again as mayor.

To Adriane Carr, the sole Green on council, the situation shows just how important it is to reform B.C.’s formerly anything-goes campaign finance rules. The 2018 municipal election will be the first to be fought under new rules that ban corporate and union donations and cap individual donations at $1,200.

Adriane Carr, centre, campaigns for Pete Fry, left, during the 2017 by-election.

Jen St. Denis/Metro

Adriane Carr, centre, campaigns for Pete Fry, left, during the 2017 by-election.

The Greens do not accept donations from developers — Carr said her party had even returned checks — but the party does accept funds from small businesses, including in-kind items like a keg of beer to be used at a campaign event.

“I hear people come to speak to us at public hearing and meetings who feel that there is a bias inherent in the acceptance of those donations,” Carr said.

George Affleck, an NPA councillor, said he supports stricter campaign finance rules but he worries the drop in fundraising capability will lead to a drop in voter turnout, as parties will no longer have the resources to buy advertising.

But Carr doesn’t believe you need a lot of money to win elections. She noted that in 2014, the Green Party got four out of seven candidates for council, school board and park board elected with just $100,000. They did it by mobilizing volunteers to knock on doors and do street canvassing.

And Affleck and Carr both observed that because of the new rules, candidates will be more reliant than ever on voters getting information through another old-fashioned source: local journalism.

Vision Vancouver did not respond for a request for comment for this story.

More on Metronews.ca