B.C. political funding stokes fires of disenchantment

Writing on the eve of the U.S. election, I share the widespread concern that regardless of which party wins, dangerous forces have been unleashed that will be hard to contain.

The anger, alienation and frustration bubbling up from millions of U.S. citizens – expressed most vividly by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters – will not be eliminated or even diminished by the election.

It’s tempting to watch this from a distance, like an NFL game on TV, wincing at the pain those people are inflicting on each other, but knowing it’s their pain, in another world, never ours. We have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s shadow protecting us from all that freshly minted hate, after all. We have guidance from people like my friend Jim Hoggan, whose wise book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up points us to a calming, measured, Buddhist-inspired path to mutual respect and compromise.

But how immune are we, really? More importantly, what are we doing to fan the same flames that threaten to burn down the public square just south of us. What is causing B.C. voters to go anonymously ballistic in online frat houses, seething at the “elites” who play, to their own conductors, tunes the rest of us never get to hear?

My vote goes to out-of-control political funding. Disenchanted U.S. voters may not know all the details – especially those who shifted their vote just because they heard the words “FBI” and “emails” in the same sentence – but they do know the political deck is stacked in favour of moneyed interests.

An April episode of 60 Minutes revealed that newly elected members of Congress are told when they first arrive in Washington that they are expected to spend 30 hours a week – that’s four to five hours a day – in the Republican and Democratic call centres across the street from Congress, dialling for dollars. Their first responsibility is to raise $18,000 a day. They will spend more time raising money than they are expected to spend on political issues or serving their constituents.

The smart ones, of course, will be looking for the biggest funders they can find. Just like our politicians. Only ours have even fewer constraints than their U.S. counterparts. B.C. remains the largest Canadian province with no restriction on who finances political campaigns. Parties and candidates in B.C. can solicit any amount from any organization or any person anywhere in the world.

I have previously written about the baffling decisions to build the Site C dam and a 10-lane Massey tunnel replacement bridge. Site C, built with an exemption from scrutiny by the BC Utilities Commission, will lose money for 70 years, according to BC Hydro’s latest statements. It has wiped out the domestic B.C. clean energy industry, the biggest business opportunity of our time, while the government hugs the ghost of its failed LNG fossil-fuel dreams. The $3.5 billion Massey project is crashing ahead with scant consideration of the myriad other ways cross-Fraser River mobility could be improved for that price.

Why is our government so keen to see projects like these go ahead?

As we all do, they’re listening to their funders. IntegrityBC reports that almost 75% of Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure contracts went to 52 companies that have collectively donated $1.2 million to the BC Liberal Party since 2005.

When an April 2016 Insights West poll asked respondents to rank different groups based on their influence on shaping provincial policy, 47% ranked corporations No. 1, far ahead of lobbyists, foreign investors, unions and fifth-ranked “citizens.” The same poll found that 86% of B.C. residents support a ban on corporate and union political donations, including 81% of BC Liberal voters.

Ignoring our own financial political corruption puts us at high risk of becoming part of what’s about to happen south of us. Whatever that might be. 

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a founder of Business in Vancouver and a former Vancouver city councillor.