B.C. Liberals' reason for not changing election laws 'astonishing', lawyer says

A legal expert is dismissing claims made by the B.C. Liberals to justify having an independent commission study campaign financing reforms instead of passing a private members bill before the May 9 provincial election.

Yesterday on CBC's The Early Edition, B.C. MLA Andrew Wilkinson said the party could not pass any one of the multiple private members bills on political donations currently before the B.C. Legislature because they were not legally "robust" enough.

"[Private members bills] 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," he said.

B.C.'s current campaign finance structure allows unlimited financial donations from corporations, unions and individuals whether they are residents of B.C. or not. It has come under significant scrutiny in recent months, especially after allegations of corporations making undeclared donations through lobbyists to the B.C. Liberals prompted an RCMP investigation.

Toronto-based lawyer Guy Giorno, who practices in the field of election law, said this claim was "astonishing."

Giorno, who served as a chief of staff to former Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, says Wilkinson's claim that introducing such a bill would infringe on constitutional freedoms is unsupported.

"It's never been argued before. It's quite an astonishing proposition," he said.

"It's widely accepted that parliaments and legislatures have that right [to limit financial contributions] and I just don't understand the basis for arguing that otherwise ... The idea that foreigners have a constitutional right to contribute to Canadian political parties whether in British Columbia or otherwise is ridiculous."

'A level playing field'

Giorno said the general trend in Canada has been to increasingly restrict the amount of money people can donate.

Ontario, Alberta, Quebec are among the provinces to ban corporate and union donations in recent years. Such donations have been banned at the federal level since 2006.

"It is understood that people have the right to make contributions to participate in the process, but one thing the Supreme Court of Canada has made very clear is that it's important and Parliament and Legislatures have the right to maintain a level playing field," he explained.

"If that means capping contributions so that those who are wealthy do not have greater rights of access or influence or participation over those who have limited means, Legislatures have the right to do that."

No need for panel

Giorno further questioned the B.C. Liberal's decision to establish an independent panel to study the issue saying it has already been widely studied by academics.

"The issue is already well-defined. The positions are understood. The policy arguments are out there for legislators and British Columbians to consider," he said, adding there was "absolutely no reason" B.C. couldn't apply the best practices established by other provinces who have already implemented finance laws.

He said contrary to the B.C. Liberals claims that funding political parties would fall to the taxpayer if the ban was introduced, he said political parties were more than resilient enough to find better ways to fundraise.

The real focus, he said, should be on an individual's right to participate in democracy.

"What's important is we have integrity, fairness and a level playing field in our elections ... The impact on democracy should be central."

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Legal expert on B.C. Liberals campaign finance claims