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Rob Shaw: Funding flip-flop might just fit

After John Horgan said it wouldn’t happen, public funding for political parties was a major reverse – but might turn out for the best, if hard to swallow for the NDP.
Premier John Horgan. (BC Government Flickr)

Premier John Horgan pulled off a major flip-flop when he promised there’d be no per-vote public subsidy for political parties before the 2017 election, and then turned around and brought one in anyway after winning power.

There’s really no other way to put it: He said taxpayers wouldn’t end up footing the bill for his party’s plan to end corporate and union donations, and then he put in place a system that, according to new figures released by Elections B.C. this month, will have paid out almost $15 million to those same parties by the end of this year.

So let’s call it what it was, one last time: a blatant and hypocritical flip-flop.

And then, collectively, let’s all just take a deep breath and... get over it.

Leave it behind. Move on. Put it in the past.

Because public subsidies for political parties has, in the end, turned out to be a surprisingly defensible policy.

Horgan could do worse than choose to make the funding permanent when the subsidies run out later this year.

Most people agreed banning corporate and union donations was a good move when the NDP announced it in 2017.

The sticking point was the “transitional allowance” of $2.50 per vote brought in at the same time to help wean the parties off the private funds.

That amount dropped to $1.75 this year, and is set to be eliminated entirely unless an all-party group of MLAs decided to keep it in place within the next 12 months.

"We believe it's good public policy to have a transition, which is a modest cost to taxpayers in the grand scheme of things and will be gone in four years," Horgan said in 2017.

The idea was to phase it out before the next election.

But Horgan decided to call a snap vote in the fall.

So British Columbia had its first taste of an election in which major corporations and unions were barred from making enormous cash donations to their parties of choice. Instead, the parties had half their election expenses covered by the public and were able to draw upon some of the millions in subsidies received in years prior to pay for campaign staff, advertising and expenses.

Big private money was gone. Big public money took its place.

The result? Not bad, all things considered.

There was no repeat of the 2017 election, when we learned the NDP’s largest donor, the United Steelworkers, was paying the salaries of the NDP’s election campaign director and deputy director in exchange for direct influence if the NDP formed government.

Nor did we have a repeat of Liberal cash-for-access fundraisers, in which face time with the premier and ministers was sold off at swanky dinners in private homes to whomever could cut the largest cheque to the party’s campaign warchest.

The election wasn’t any nicer, or more civil, or filled with more substantive debates or policy ideas. But it was, in one sense, cleaner.

The per-vote public subsidies also played another important role in levelling the playing field when Horgan tried to catch his Liberal and Green opponents at their weakest with the snap election call on Sept. 21, 2020.

The parties still had to scramble to get campaign financing in place. The Greens in particular were disorganized, having just finished the leadership race that elected Sonia Furstenau.

But both parties were in relatively healthy positions because they’d been receiving millions in public funding since the previous election in 2017.

The transitional allowance also reimbursed the parties 50 per cent of their election expenses on such things as advertising, polling, staff, signage and offices - potentially worth millions of dollars.

Although it’s easy to dismiss that public funding as wasted, it did serve an important function worth preserving in the future: It prevented the party in power from running roughshod over its opponents simply because it could raise more money before a campaign.

Even with these arguments, it’s going to be a tough sell for Horgan if he does decide to make the per-vote subsidy permanent.

Election campaigns are brutal, nasty affairs. The public may simply balk at having anything to do with funding them.

The BC Liberals and Greens could support the idea, rather than turn it into a political punching bag to score cheap points. The Liberals in particular need the cash, having been decimated in the campaign and left with a shaky future.

But the position of the two parties on the issue is currently unclear.

Complicating matters is the fact the early election produced an unexpected beneficiary of the per-vote public subsidy: The B.C. Conservative Party.

The Conservatives stand to get $62,828 this year in public funds, based on their performance in October’s election (35,902 votes, or 1.9 per cent of the provincewide popular vote.)

Never in the NDP’s worst nightmare did that party imagine it would be responsible for awarding taxpayer money to a right-wing political movement whose social views it considers repugnant. But here we are.

That’s an easy fix, if Horgan wants. Raise the thresholds. Tighten up the rules. Confine the money to major parties that pick up an undeniable level of public support.

It’s not immediately clear if the premier is even thinking of going this route, and making the public subsidy permanent.

Horgan took a lot of heat for the way it was implemented in 2017. And he deserved all of it.

But once you put that aside and look at the benefits of the change, it might turn out he made the right call after all.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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