Such reforms are top of mind this week because, with news that the NDP government’s first throne speech is to be delivered on Friday, Sept. 8, speculation has turned to what the
contents of that speech may be. Many observers predict the Horgan government will have to address its longstanding commitment
to introduce provincial campaign-donation reforms.
This, in turn, leads me to wonder if the NDP will decide to act on municipal-level campaign-donation
and -spending restrictions, as has been called for by some local politicians but which has been opposed repeatedly by me; moreover, such possible restrictions were the subject of a
cautionary letter sent by Coquitlam Council to the three provincial party leaders last spring.
Faithful readers of this blog will recall that I have long argued that restrictions on corporate and/or union donations will severely handicap independent and unaffiliated candidates, unfairly helping
candidates who are members of slates or parties, or who have the backing (and access to membership lists) of labour unions.
What is also evident is that,
if severe donation restrictions are put in place, outside special-interest groups will likely end up playing a bigger role, not only in pre-campaign marketing, organizing and lobbying efforts, but also during campaigns themselves. It is easy to imagine a variety
of issue-oriented groups moving into the vacuum created by hamstrung candidates who, because of donation and spending restrictions, will be unable to produce the flyers, pamphlets, and advertising they could produce in past election campaigns.
And here’s where Dogwood comes into the picture. The organization boasts on its websitethat it had a successful (but,
in my eyes, largely unrecognized) impact on the last provincial election. “We had 71 election related events over the last two months across B.C.,” the group reported in early June. “We made 36,564 phone calls to get out the vote. We had
13,576 live conversations with our supporters. We texted 63,000 people. That is powerful.
“We made sure our supporters, those who want to stop Kinder
Morgan, ban big money, and end thermal coal exports, showed up at their voting polls. We talked to people who weren’t sure who they were voting for or if they were voting. We helped British Columbians find their polling place and bring the right ID.
And we know by how tight this election was that every vote counted — especially in those important ridings where anti-Kinder Morgan politicians were elected like Burnaby North, Coquitlam-Maillardville and Courtenay-Comox.“
Coquitlam residents should take special note of the fact that DI is, essentially, claiming credit for helping elect NDP MLA Selina Robinson and defeat BC Liberal candidate Steve
As suggested above, it is worth underlining that the DI is an enthusiastic supporter ofbanning
“big money” from elections and has even called a “corruption inquiry”into BC politics. Of course, the way I see it, a ban on so-called big money would undoubtedly strengthen
the DI’s hand, giving it less competition in the marketplace of political ideas.
Moreover, the DI’s call to eliminate “big money”
from politics can easily be seen as rather rich coming from an organization whose $2.2-million-dollar budget (for the year ended March 31, 2016) has its own share of “big money” revenue, to the tune of $922,447 in grants.
All this wouldn’t necessarily be of much interest to Coquitlam civic voters were it not for the fact that, on June 13, Alex McGowan, who identified himself as “the
Dogwood BC Provincial Organizer in the area including Coquitlam,” told me in an email that his organization “recently made the decision to invest in building teams in the area from Burnaby to Maple Ridge in advanced [sic] of the 2018 municipal
election.” He continued, “I know you are an incredible advocate in your community and I think we can find space to work together.”
responded to his invitation to meet me by posing a series of questions, including these:
*From which organizations, and of what total, did you receive grants in 2016?
*What were the services you provided, and to whom, that accounted for the reported $350,427 in "fee for service" revenue in 2016?
*Your organization's website celebrates the "behind the scenes" impact
the DI had on the last provincial election. The site also states that the DI is a "registered sponsor" under the "Election Act." ... [W]hich candidates or parties did you sponsor, and how much did you spend in support of that sponsorship? (Please itemize).
*Is it the DI's intent to formally or informally support candidates, based on their support of your policies and or campaigns, in next year's municipal elections? If so, can those candidates expect to receive indirect or
direct financial support from the DI? If so, how much?
Mr. McGowan’s responses were revealing for what he said and what he did not say. Most importantly,
he revealed that the group receives an unspecified amount of funding from sources in the United States. Here is his complete answer on this subject:
fundraising: - 60% of Dogwood's funding comes from non-grant sources: individuals and earned revenue; none comes from government or corporations; among the foundations that support Dogwood several are based in Seattle, a city that shares the Salish Sea with
British Columbia. Dogwood’s campaign decisions are independent from any financial influence since no single source provides more than 5% of total revenue. We receive donations from over 10,000 individual Canadians.”
He did not provide the names of any of those foreign funders. But a little Internet sleuthing turned up the fact that the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, which has been the subject of several
exposes by National Post contributor Vivian Krause, has been one of the DI’s major funders, pouring $187,425 into its coffers in2015 alone.
One suspects that those BC voters, who are concerned about corporate and union donations to local politicians, would also be concerned about foreign advocacy groups’ support
of a local special-interest group.
I am also wondering why Mr. McGowan did not answer my question about the nature of the “fee for service”
revenue it received in 2016. He did say that, “We have registered as intervenors in the past three elections. We have never endorsed or financially supported any candidate or party as per our non-partisan status. We remain committed to that policy. Our
election work continues to be about increasing turnout and engagement. In regards to election spending, all registered intervenors are required by law to submit detailed reports to all applicable election oversight bodies.”
That’s good information, but the non-partisanship implied by Mr. McGowan’s statement seems to be at odds with the declaration, quoted above, that, “We made sure our supporters,
those who want to stop Kinder Morgan, ban big money, and end thermal coal exports, showed up at their voting polls.”
I had a brief phone chat this week with Mr. McGowan about some of the
gaps in the information he supplied. We hope to have a fuller talk in the near future; if we do – and if any more details are forthcoming – I will update this article.
I have now had a good discussion with Mr. McGowan about some of the issues I raised, above.
*On the fee-for-service issue, he stated firmly that DI does not sell its services to any political organization.
Rather, its does training and consulting-type work for other non-profits.
*On the question of foreign donations, he stated that the amount the DI receives is "relatively small" and the money has been primarily used
to support the DI's campaign to stop coal-port expansion.
*On the apparent conflict in values -- the DI is opposed to corporate and union funding of parties and candidates, but in favour of its receipt of foreign
grants -- Mr. McGowan says the distinction is that the DI is not responsible for making decisions.
*On the possibility that, if successful, DI's opposition to union and corporate funding would create a more open playing
field for DI and other organizations to influence public policy, he say Dogwood does not have the funds to run ads in every municipality.
*And, finally, on the apparent, de-facto partisanship, he said that, yes, the
DI "definitely" wants to influence elections, but it does so by identifying party and candidate stances on crucial issues, and then communicating (to people they have identified who support the DI's goals) those stances. The DI does not specifically endorse
or support any party or candidate, though.
For my part, I told him that it was my opinion that I am concerned about the impact of foreign money on local politics, that I believe its work constitutes de facto
endorsement of candidates, and that the DI's anti-corporate and -union donations stance would, if implemented, unfairly favour candidates aligned with organized parties or slates, particularly if those parties and slates are affiliated with unions, which have
access to volunteers and membership lists.
We agreed to disagree.
Terry O'Neill is a councillor in Coquitlam – his BLOG