NEWS: Vancouver’s Path for Electoral Reform

Time to Cleanup Local ElectionsBy Think City Staff

When the province’s local government elections task force released its May 28 report listing 31 recommendations for reforming BC’s civic elections, Vancouver's Mayor Gregor Robertson said they didn’t go far enough.

City council’s unanimous call for full disclosure and a ban on union, corporate and foreign donations were nowhere to be seen said the mayor. Other councillors also expressed disappointment that limits on donations were left off the list of reforms.

Is the road to electoral reform dead in Vancouver? Will the city’s 20-plus other democratic reforms that former supreme court justice Thomas Berger identified in his 2004 Vancouver electoral commission continue to gather dust? Maybe not.

When Think City interviewed Bill Bennett before he was shuffled into another cabinet position in mid-June, the then minister of communities and rural development said he wanted to “try to find some way for Vancouver to act differently.” Bennett went on to say he recognized Vancouver’s unique electoral reform issues and perspectives.

And it’s a good thing too. Take a look at the case against contribution limits made by Bennett’s task force.

When the task force decided to choose spending limits over contribution limits, Bennett originally told the Vancouver Sun editorial board that councillors had to excuse themselves from votes at council involving campaign donors. Bennett was wrong and was forced to retract his comments the very next day.

If it were true, no elected official in Vancouver could vote on council business that involved Concord Pacific or its CEO Terry Hui, as all three civic parties took donations from Hui or his company in 2005 and 2008. Strike one.

Bennett’s task force also rejected the notion of contribution limits claiming that spending limits would also reduce the need for large contributions. Just saying that donors who gave $100,000 to campaigns in 2008 won’t in 2011 doesn’t make it so. Strike two.

Finally, the task force’s own background paper on contribution limits recognized that outside BC there is a trend toward imposing contribution limits. Moreover, a glaring omission from the report is Alberta’s recently revised municipal campaign finance laws. In that province, there are no restrictions on election spending, however candidates standing for election cannot take contributions from individuals, unions or corporations over $5,000 during an election year.

This legislation was passed in the Alberta legislature last February, yet the Bennett task force paper on contribution limits makes no reference to this example from our nearest provincial neighbour. Strike three.

More than 3,000 Vancouverites took part in Think City’s two surveys on electoral reform conducted this past winter and spring. The vast majority supported the reforms repeatedly put forward by city council since the Berger Commission. So where does Vancouver go next?

On June 24, city council debated how they would continue to lobby for contribution limits, on-going disclosure, a ban on union, corporate and foreign donations, and tax credits for political donations. They also raised the issue of widening the scope of electoral system choices for the city without having to seek permission from the provincial legislature to change how we vote for our local politicians.

Council ruled out further attempts to get the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) onside. Last year’s tri-party motion to the UBCM calling for a variety of campaign finance reforms got buried in the agenda, according to the motion’s sponsor, Councillor Ellen Woodsworth. In addition, half of the members of the local government elections task force were drawn from the UBCM executive and all of them opposed contribution limits. Finally, leading BC mayors, like Burnaby’s Derek Corrigan, want no changes to how local politicians finance their campaigns.

Instead, Mayor Robertson and council have chosen to deal with the one body that has the authority to make change – the provincial legislature. The latest in a series of unanimous tri-party votes on electoral reform saw the three major civic parties – the Coalition of Progressive Electors, the Non-Partisan Association and Vision Vancouver agree to step up the city’s campaign for democratic change. Council will now be seeking a meeting with Ben Stewart, the new minister of community and rural development, to discuss Vancouver Charter changes that would improve the electoral process for the 2011 civic election.

When Mayor Robertson does get his meeting in Victoria, he may want to push for Toronto’s solution. Canada’s biggest city was able to strike a separate deal from other municipalities with the Ontario legislature on election law reforms. Toronto now has spending limits, contribution limits, public financing in the form of generous donor credits, a neighbourhood constituency system, a total ban on union and corporate donations, and strict laws governing disclosure.

As University of Calgary professors Lisa Young and Sam Austin found, Toronto’s local election candidates have a more diverse funding base, are less reliant on corporate contributions particularly development industry contributions and are forced to compete in elections where the playing field is more level. And just like Vancouver, Toronto has its own legislation that separates it from the rest of the province’s municipalities.

Length of Term

There is no support for the change from three year terms to four year terms. In fact, the general public and non-municipal organizations were strongly in favour of keeping the three year term.The longer the term, the less empowered is the voter.

The principle of voter equality

The basic principle should be voter equality. When it comes to the actual voting each voter is now treated equally. When it comes to voter representation each voter is not treated equally. Some voters get a councillor who represents their views in Council. Others do not. It is usually about half and half. A much better electoral system would fix this. When it comes to campaign ocntributions each voter should be permitted to contribute the same amount, and this amount should be an amount that nearly all voters can afford. $100 would seem to fit this requirement. Any worthy candidate should be able to find 100 supporters willing to contribute this amount, and thus get $10,000 for a campaign in a small city.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.