Municipal Electoral Finance Reform: It should be the AMS’ top lobbying priority.

November 12, 2008

Honestly, I haven’t been paying too much attention to the municipal election.  It’s just that the issues I care about most are not apparently being championed by any party, or even by the AMS.  Sure the AMS is trying to bring attention to our overcrowded bus system, which certainly affects me and many other students, and may achieve some marginal improvement in the short term in this one area, but there are many many municipal government decisions that affect students even if we aren’t aware of all the connections.  In order to achieve lasting improvements for students across all these different issues, the AMS needs to work on the fundamental incentives our democratic system gives politicians, as well as on the issues that affect us directly.

One of the areas in the clearest need of reform is Vancouver’s electoral finance laws.  Currently candidates and parties can accept donations from whomever they please, almost always with interests attached.  There are no spending limits, and there is no public funding.

Elections are low-information affairs where money is essential to produce and air adds that are designed and tested to get target voting groups to buy into parties or candidates, just as consumers are convinced to buy products in other marketing campaigns.  Thus it is essential for parties to get this funding in one way or another, which is why enormous donations from developers and other special interests are accepted by Vision and the NPA (with COPE getting some money from unions).  But there is a quid-pro-quo for this.  These donations are a profit-maximizing move by special interests that expect a return on their investment, invariably at the expense of taxpayers or of voters getting the kind of city they want (this Georgia Straight article gives some excellent examples of how money is shaping municipal politics).  And when councilors have to make priorities, guess who they listen to first?  And guess who they will leave out in the cold?

That’s right, us!

What we need is to ban donations to municipal parties from anything and anybody who is not a Vancouver voter (i.e. corporations and unions), and to limit donations by Vancouver voters to a yearly donation of a reasonable quantity such as $1000 per person per year.  However, big money will always find a way to speak (i.e. through third-party advertising), thus what is also needed as a counter-weight is public funding to ensure other voices are not still drowned out.  Our federal system of electoral finance laws provides one model, allocating public money to parties through generous tax rebates for political donations and the $2 yearly per vote.  Also, in the US they have pioneered candidate-based models of public financing, as described here, if this is what we prefer.  Clearly there are ways to do this — what is lacking is the political will.

Until we can get the incentives right, AMS and student issues will always be second-priority, so it is in the AMS’ best interest to get some reasonable electoral finance laws in place municipally.  There is a host of other less well financed interests that would benefit from this also, which the AMS should try to cooperate with.  Furthermore, COPE and Vision have expressed an interest in pursuing this in the past and may find it to their benefit as well, so if a public demand for this were expressed, this election could be decisive in putting Vancouver on a more democratic path in which big money does not talk so loudly.

There are other significant flaws in Vancouver’s democratic system as well, such as an electoral system that distorts voters intentions far more seriously than even FPTP (First Past the Post), but the lack of electoral finance rules is perhaps the most glaring flaw, and has solutions that most people can agree on.  Until the AMS starts tackling these root problems with our democratic system and we get our electoral finance rules right, developers and others with deep pockets will be at the top of the politician’s priority list, and the AMS will be left with the scraps.

Disclaimer: This post is based on what I recall reading in the past and is factually correct to the best of my knowledge, but I did no fact checking while writing it.

By: Bruce Krayenhoff

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One Response to “Municipal Electoral Finance Reform: It should be the AMS’ top lobbying priority.”

  1. wbrucek Says:

    These examples of money’s influence in municipal politics are quoted from straight.com/article-169795/straight-slate-vancouver-and-burbs:

    Keep in mind that there are some significant differences between Vision and the NPA. Vision is supported by many unions, so it shouldn’t surprise voters when its mayoral candidate, Gregor Robertson, promises not to contract out civic services. NPA mayoral candidate Peter Ladner has said he is open to the idea of contracting out services if this provides a better deal for taxpayers. The NPA has already supported an $800,000 expansion of the Downtown Ambassadors program; this is, in effect, contracting out security to business-improvement associations. Many property owners on the boards of these associations are also contributors to the NPA.

    During council’s last term, Vision, and not the NPA, was the loudest proponent for increasing the number of police officers in Vancouver.

    The police union is a contributor to Vision, which opposes expanding the Downtown Ambassadors program.

    And More:

    At its June nominating meeting, Vision members voted against putting lawyer David Eby on the party’s council slate. Eby has been one of the city’s strongest advocates for low-income tenants and victims of police brutality. The presence of Eby on the Vision slate could have deprived the party of donations from major developers and the police union, which might explain why he failed to make the grade. Regardless, the reluctance of Vision to nominate Eby shows a decidedly less progressive bent than the party often presents to the public.


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