B.C. Liberals defend commission to investigate fundraising

The B.C. Liberals are defending their decision to launch an independent commission on political donations as an adequate response to the controversies surrounding B.C.'s political financing structure.

Andrew Wilkinson, the minister of advanced education and the Liberal MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena, said an independent panel is the best way to broadly deal with campaign finance reform.

"Doing [reform] piecemeal seems to be ineffective. It leads to ongoing controversy, so the premier decided to get the issue addressed comprehensively," he explained.

The independent non-partisan panel will consider issues around campaign finance and put forward suggestions.

The panel's report will not come before B.C.'s provincial election on May 9 and Wilkinson said the results of the panel will be persuasive, if not binding.

"With that high profile publicity and their perceived independence — which would have been agreed to unanimously by the parties — that would create tremendous pressure in the Legislature to follow through with the panel recommendations or at least give them a thorough legal review," he said.

Private member bills not 'robust'

There are multiple private members bills currently before the B.C. Legislature calling for the end of corporate and union donations that could be passed before the election.

NDP Leader John Horgan — whose party has introduced such legislation six times — said he was frustrated by the lack of action.

"Every time we bring it forward, the government refuses to debate it," he said.

But Wilkinson said the bills were not "robust" enough to pass legal muster. 

"Private members bill are brief," he said. "They are crude instruments that are legislative in nature and to pass those would invite Charter challenges under Section 2 freedom of association and freedom of expression."

In B.C., anyone from around the world can donate to a political party and there are no caps on how much money individuals can donate.

The B.C. Liberals have generally defended these rules, but controversy around the party's fundraising tactics came to a head last week. A Globe and Mail investigation alleged some lobbyists were contributing to the party as private individuals and then being reimbursed by their clients which in B.C. is illegal.

Those allegations are now being investigated by the RCMP.

A 'topical' issue

Horgan said the timing of the announcement less than 60 days before the election was "late in the day" and the Liberals had already benefited from the status quo.

But when Wilkinson was questioned about the timing of the B.C. Liberals' announcement, he merely said it was "topical" and pointed out the B.C. Liberals had just introduced a bill to introduce more transparency to donations.

"That is the state of the legislative calendar right now, and the issue has become sufficiently current and sufficiently topical so people are looking for a broader answer," he said.

When questioned whether he understood the public's perception the current campaign finance rules give the impression corporations or interest groups can buy political influence, Wilkinson adamantly denied he had ever personally been affected by such donations.

"As for donations, [for example] if you look at the independent contractors giving $33,000 over four months, they represent thousands if not tens of thousands of workers and dozens of companies and they apparently believe the B.C. Liberals are doing a good job ... and that's why they support us."

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled MLA Andrew Wilkinson defends B.C. Liberals response to political financing controversy