Democracy Watch challenges B.C. Conflict of Interest Commissioner’s ruling on Premier Clark’s high-priced, exclusive fundraising events

Also asks court to rule Commissioner Paul Fraser was in a conflict of interest when ruling on complaints as his son works for B.C. Cabinet – Fraser should have recused himself as he did in 2012

B.C. political parties should also change political finance system to match Quebec’s $100 annual donation limit and other world-leading measures

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Wednesday, October 26, 2016

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch applied to the B.C. Supreme Court for a ruling rejecting B.C. Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser’s decision that Premier Christy Clark’s high-priced, exclusive fundraising events don’t create conflicts of interest for her, and that the donations made at the events do not benefit her personally.

The case also asks the court to rule that Commissioner Fraser shouldn’t have ruled on complaints filed about the events because he was in a conflict of interest given that his son works as a deputy minister for the B.C. Liberal Cabinet. In 2012, Commissioner Fraser stepped aside and didn’t rule on a complaint filed about Premier Clark because of his son’s connection to the Premier’s office. Democracy Watch wants the court to order a reexamination of the complaints by another person who is fully independent of all B.C. political parties.

According to media reports, Premier Clark has hosted or attended several small, invitation-only fundraising events for the B.C. Liberals with ticket prices ranging from $2,000 to $20,000, and also attended an event in her riding association sponsored for $2,500 each by four sponsors. Not only does Premier Clark receive an annual salary from the B.C. Liberals for, in part, fundraising activities, she also makes policy decisions as Premier that affect at least some of the donors.

The B.C. Members’ Conflict of Interest Act prohibits the Premier and all MLAs from exercising their official powers or performing any official duties or functions if they have an opportunity to further their private interest or if there is a reasonable perception that their private interest affects their actions or decisions (sections 2 and 3). It also prohibits them from receiving any gift or personal benefit directly or indirectly connected to their position (section 7).

Democracy Watch, which filed a complaint with Commissioner Fraser about the Premier’s fundraising events last March, takes the position that Premier Clark benefited personally and was in a conflict of interest when attending the events because she receives some of the money raised as her salary from the B.C. Liberal Party. Democracy Watch’s position is also that the events created ongoing conflicts of interest for Premier Clark that prohibit her from making decisions that affect any company or organization that had a representative at any of the events.

Commissioner Fraser ruled on May 4 and August 9, 2016 that the donations made at the events did not benefit Premier Clark personally, and did not amount to a private interest that put her in a conflict of interest. He essentially refused to rule on whether the donations created ongoing conflicts of interest for Premier Clark when she is making policy decisions that affect the donors – he didn’t even investigate to find out who attended the events.

“Democracy Watch’s position is that big donations made at private fundraising events where the politician is essentially selling access to themselves are a clear violation of the conflict-of-interest law, and we hope the B.C. Supreme Court will agree and overrule Commissioner Fraser’s decision that the donations didn’t benefit Premier Clark or put her in a conflict of interest,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “Commissioner Fraser stepped aside from ruling on a situation involving Premier Clark in 2012 because of his son’s work with the B.C. Liberal Cabinet, and he should have stepped aside again this time. Commissioner Fraser’s apparent conflict of interest and the legal errors in his ruling give the court many reasons to reject his ruling on Premier Clark’s fundraising events.”

Jason Gratl of the law firm Gratl and Company, who is Democracy Watch’s counsel for the case, said: “Reasonable people perceive the connection between the Premier being paid to attend Liberal fundraisers and donors paying to access the Premier. It is unreasonable to miss this connection.”

Democracy Watch also called on the B.C. government to make the same world-leading changes to the province’s political donation system (including at the municipal level) as Quebec made in 2013 when it lowered its individual donation limit to $100 annually to each party, with an additional $100 allowed to be donated to an independent candidate, and required donations to be verified by Elections Quebec before being transferred to parties and candidates.

Political finance systems across Canada, other than Quebec’s provincial system, are all undemocratic in various ways. B.C. (along with Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and the Yukon) have the most undemocratic political finance systems in Canada as they allow unlimited donations from corporations, unions and other organizations, and individuals, even if they are not located in or don’t live in the jurisdiction. Saskatchewan is almost as bad, with the only difference being that individual donors have to be a Canadian citizen.

New Brunswick, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are also almost as bad because they allow undemocratically high donations from corporations, unions and organizations (and New Brunswick allows those donations to come from outside the province).

And while the federal government, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have banned corporate and union donations (and Ontario will likely do this soon), they still allow undemocratically high donations that only wealthy people can afford.

Donations to parties in Quebec, the federal parties in the past few years, and to Toronto city councillors, show what happens with such high donation limits. Few have been charged in Quebec’s corruption scandal even though an Elections Quebec audit found $12.8 million in likely illegally funneled donations from 2006-2011.

And to give one example from the federal level, in 2014 only 8.9% of donors gave 41.7% of total donations to federal Liberal Party (and 3.8% of donors gave the party 23.1% of the total donated to the Party – neither of these figures count how much more these people gave to riding associations that year).

And Toronto’s experience is another example of how high donation limits allow donors to get around bans of corporate and union donations. Such donations were banned in Toronto elections in 2009, and individual donations limited to $750 annually, but a 2016 analysis by the Toronto Star found that big business and other special interest group executives and their families continue to give large amounts to city councillors.

“Any political party that refuses to make these changes is essentially admitting they are up for sale and that they approve of the unethical and undemocratic best-government-money-can-buy approach to politics,” said Conacher. “The only way to stop the unethical and undemocratic influence of big money in Canadian politics is to stop big money donations.”

The key changes that must be made across Canada to democratize political finance systems are as follows;

  1. a ban on donations by corporations, unions and other organizations (Quebec enacted such a ban in the late 1970s);
  2. a limit on annual donations by individuals to each party of $100-200 annually (Quebec’s limit is $100) with donations routed through the election watchdog agency (as in Quebec);
  3. a ban on donations from individuals who do not live in the jurisdiction;
  4. a prohibition on loans to political parties, riding associations and candidates, except from a public fund (with loans limited to the average annual amount of donations received during the previous two years);
  5. a limit on spending during campaigns by parties, nomination race and election candidates, third party interest groups, and candidates in party leadership races (Alberta and the Yukon have no limits at all; only the federal government, B.C., Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec limit third party spending, and; no jurisdictions have limits on party leadership race spending);
  6. disclosure of all donations and gifts of money, property, services and volunteer labour given to any party, riding association, politician, nomination race, election or party leadership candidate, including the identity of the donor’s employer, and board and executive affiliations (and the identity of organizers of any fundraising event);
  7. a base amount of annual public funding for parties based on each vote received during the last election (which Quebec has — no more than $1 per vote, with a portion required to be shared with riding associations);
  8. annual public funding for parties matching the first $100,000-$200,000 raised (as in Quebec);
  9. public funding for candidates matching the first $20,000 raised (as in Quebec), and;
  10. a requirement that election, donation and ethics watchdogs conduct annual random audits to ensure all the rules are being followed by everyone.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443
info@democracywatch.ca

Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign and Money in Politics Campaign