The subject as to whether or not corporate and union donations to political parties should be allowed in British Columbia has been a matter of debate for quite some time. It resurfaced in the headlines over the last few days.
On April 25th the Dogwood Initiative released polling results showing that “86% of British Columbians would support a ban on corporate and union donations before the next election“.
Two days later Gary Mason wrote a story in the Globe and Mail stating:
“The Globe and Mail has learned that Ms. Clark is given between $30,000 and $50,000 a year from the BC Liberal Party for work she does for it throughout the year, including attending fundraising events. “
in the same piece, the Leader of the Official Opposition is quote as saying he’s received reimbursement for a “couple of suits” totaling about $5000 since becoming Leader in 2014.
In a second piece, published later that day after the BC NDP raised the issue in Question period, Gary Mason piled on the evidence as to why he believes party stipends to premiers shouldn’t be allowed. He noted that BC is one of only two provinces in Canada where a provincial premier gets a stipend from the political party (Saskatchewan being the other). And he suggested that since one of the duties of a provincial party leader is to fundraise, a perception could be left that there is a potential conflict.
The BC Green Party, the BC NDP and Independent Member Vicki Huntington (Delta South) have long called for a ban on union and corporations in BC politics. As I’ve noted in numerous speeches in the legislature, unions don’t vote; corporations don’t vote; only people vote. BC is the wild west in terms of its lax rules for political donations. Any person, union or corporation anywhere in the world can donate any amount of money they want to any party any time they want! It leaves one wondering whose interests are being represented.
Let’s take a quick look at some data from the recent financial reporting to Elections BC.
The BC Liberal 2015 Financial Report notes that The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC donated $47,000 to the BC Liberals. KGHM Ajax Mining Inc. donated $29,000, and the New Car Dealers Association of BC also donated $62,225 to the BC Liberals.
The issue of union and corporate donations raises other potentially troubling concerns. A corporation is governed by a board that ultimately serves at the will of the corporation’s shareholders. As such, donations made by corporations are being done so whether or not a shareholder approves of such donations. In essence, shareholders are having their money used to support a political party even if they don’t support that political party. The same is true for union donations. Union members have dues taken from their paycheques to fund the operations of their unions. There may be members of a union who support a party other than the party that the union that represents them is donating to. In both cases, a chosen few individuals are making the decision as to which political party their shareholders/members will support financially.
From January 1, 2012 until May 13, 2013 (the date of the last provincial election), the United Steelworkers Union and several of its Locals donated a total of $636,484.34 to the BC NDP. During the same time, Imperial Metals Ltd donated a total of $24,110 to the BC Liberals. Mount Polley Mining Corporation also donated $45,720 to the BC Liberals.
After the tailings pond breach at the Mount Polley mine site, there were a number of newspaper stories pointing out that Imperial Metals, its controlling shareholder, and Mount Polley were all major donors to the BC Liberal Party (see for example a Vancouver Observer article). Imperial Metals was a very minor donor to the BC NDP as well. But as I indicated above, the BC NDP also received substantial donations from the United Steelworkers Union, the union that represents workers at the Mount Polley mine. In fact, Stephen Hunt, USW District 3 (Western Canada) Director, specifically called for USW members to support the BC NDP in the May 2013 election.
The purpose of me highlighting the Mount Polley situation is to detail a very real example of why we need to take big union and big corporate money out of BC politics as we have done federally. Government is elected by the people to serve the people of British Columbia. In the case of the Mount Polley incident, the government and the official opposition had to make some very difficult decisions. What, if any, penalties should be implemented? When should the mine be reopened? How should it be monitored? While I am confident that both the government and the official opposition put the best interests of people first and foremost in this case, there will always be those who will question any resulting decision because of the perception that arises when union and corporate money is donated to political parties.
The Vancouver Sun regularly publishes public sector salaries so its relatively straightforward to track what public sector employers are earning. Below I reproduce the most recently available entries from the 2013/2014 fiscal year for both the Premier (Christy Clark) as well as the Leader of the Official Opposition at the time (Adrian Dix). As you can see from the link images below, Christy Clark’s salary ranked 300th out of 6,627 people within the B.C. Government category; overall she was the 2734th out of 75,826 listed in the database. Adrian Dix’s salary ranked 695th out of 6,627 people with in the B.C. Government category; overall he was 5,358th out of 75,826 listed in the database.
2013/2014 salary for Premier (left) and leader of the opposition (right).
John Horgan took over as leader of the BC NDP in 2014. Publicly available data has yet to make it onto the Vancouver Sun site since Mr. Horgan took office. Nevertheless, the BC Legislature is transparent with respect to MLA salaries.
As of April 1, 2015, an MLA in British Columbia earns $102,878.00. This is the salary I earned as an MLA during the 2015/16 fiscal year. The Premier gets a 90% additional salary increase from this base amount and so was paid $195,468.20 during that time. Her Ministers, the Speaker as well as the leader of the official opposition (John Horgan) receive a 50% additional salary. As such, these elected officials all received $154,317 during the 2015/16 fiscal year.
Despite the fact that I am the leader of the BC Green Party, I do not receive an additional salary from the BC legislature. This is because in order for the BC Green Party to have official party status, we would need four elected members in the legislature. This didn’t stop the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island legislatures from granting official party status to the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Green parties despite that fact that they too had only one MLA elected. Had the BC government seen it fit to grant the BC Greens official party status, I would have a 25% additional salary (for an overall $128,597.50).
A natural question then is who are these other 300 people in the BC government and 2,733 people in BC’s public sector who earn more than the premier? Once more, it’s relatively easy to find that our from the Vancouver Sun’s database. Below I reproduce screenshots of the top 10 salaries in nine specific categories.
Entire Public Sector BC Government Local Government
School Districts Health Authorities Municipal Police
BC Hydro BC Ferries UBC
What should become abundantly apparent is that public sector salaries appear to be out of control in certain sectors. That there are 2,733 people in BC’s public service that earn more than the premier of our province is mind boggling to me. In my view, British Columbia needs to take a very serious and hard look at executive compensation in our public service sector.
As noted earlier, the topic of union and corporate political donations resurfaced in the headlines last week in concert with public discussion about the appropriateness of political parties giving their leader a stipend for serving in that capacity. The premier has argued that she does two jobs: one as the premier; one as leader of the political party. I have some sympathy for this argument.
While I know that the official opposition made hay over the fact that the premier received a $50,000 stipend for being leader of the BC Liberals, I would argue that it’s somewhat rich for them to try and claim the moral high ground. Leader, John Horgan, admitted to receiving about $5000 in suits from the BC NDP. I have checked the last three years (2013, 2014 and 2015) of public disclosures and do not see any disclosure of this as a remuneration or gift. The same disclosures for the premier identify she received a “Leader’s allowance” in each of these years. Perhaps there is some exemption that I am unaware of or the suits were given in 2016. Either way, I get the sense that it’s a bit like the so-called pot calling the kettle black.
This idiom also applies to the fact that the BC NDP has been calling out the BC Liberals for selling exclusive access to the premier via $10,000 a plate private dinners. Ironically, as Vaughn Palmer points out, when the NDP made such statements Horgan was off to Toronto for an exclusive $5,000 per seat fundraising breakfast. In each case, the names of the attendees were confidential and it’s not as if either the premier or leader of the official opposition have any plans of ceasing these exclusive fundraising activities.
David Eby, MLA for Vancouver Point Grey, submitted a letter to the Conflict of Interest Commissioner on April 27. While I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of Mr. Eby’s complaint, I feel it is important for me to comment on its content. First, the fact that the letter was made public and given out during a press event on the steps of the Office of the Conflict of Interest Commissioner undermines the process itself. I find this guilty until proven innocent public approach to seeking a ruling very troubling. In addition, I am somewhat surprised by the wording of allegations contained in Mr. Eby’s letter. To be frank, I think Mr. Eby has gone too far and I believe his choice of language is most unfortunate and unbecoming of someone of his stature.
Since becoming the Leader of the BC Green Party in December 2015, I have neither received a stipend nor have I received any suits. I also do not receive the additional salary as leader of a 3rd party in the BC Legislature. Present rules allow for parties to pay their leaders stipends. I have no problem with this. But what I have a substantial problem with is fourfold.
I look forward to your comments on this piece.