Allegations of improper donations coupled with heightened scrutiny over B.C.’s political contribution system are raising questions about how much influence wealthy donors have over politicians.
A Globe and Mail report revealed Woodfibre LNG paid the BC Liberals indirectly by having lobbyists donate to the party under their personal names, allegedly obscuring the source of the funds.
The dollar figures in this story are current as of The Chief’s April 25 press time.
The findings prompted an RCMP investigation into possible Elections Act violations, and the Liberals have recently paid back $56,500 to Woodfibre LNG lobbyists Marian Ngo and Byng Giraud.
Those refunds are among the $174,000 the Liberals have returned to various donors who gave money from 2010 to 2016, as shown by recent updates to Elections BC filings.
In addition, Woodfibre paid tens of thousands of dollars in donations to both the BC Liberals and the BC NDP in 2016, the latest Elections BC financial disclosures show.
The figures were made public earlier this month, and reveal that Woodfibre paid the BC Liberals around $28,000 directly.
But during this time, Ngo and Giraud collectively paid an additional $3,900 to the BC Liberals. It is unclear if this was on behalf Woodfibre LNG, as the company is not commenting on the matter.
However, their LinkedIn profiles state that they were working for Woodfibre during this time period.
Filings also show the company paid $38,000 to the BC NDP at that time. (The contributions to the NDP are unrelated to the alleged improper donations involving the BC Liberals.)
As the provincial vote draws closer, the findings have become something of an election issue, as the Liberals, NDP and Greens are all promising reform for the political donation system.
But amidst these promises are also questions about whether some parties would be willing to reform a political contribution system that appears to be benefiting them.
The Liberals and NDP are denying contributions have any effect on their decision-making, despite having received sizeable sums of money from wealthy donors, who have no limits on their donations under B.C. law. “I don’t think they have any impact,” said Sea to Sky Liberal MLA candidate Jordan Sturdy. “I insulate myself from that.”
He asserted he keeps party donations at an arm’s length, though he said he does attend fundraising dinners.
Sturdy also said that he as an individual MLA does not receive funds from a source like Woodfibre when that money is donated to the BC Liberal party.
“If the donation is made to the BC Liberal party, then I don’t see any of it,” he said.
MLAs and individual candidates are often responsible for their own fundraising, he added, though they can receive aid from their local riding associations.
Funding from associations would help pay for signs, advertising and other campaign-related costs.
He mentioned, however, that large corporate donations may not always look good in the public eye.
“I understand the optical issues and it’s a complex situation,” said Sturdy. “I certainly respect the need and support the idea that we need to have electoral financing reform. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
He added that the BC Liberals have begun to address this issue by posting reports of their campaign donations online, which he says opposing parties such as the BC NDP have failed to do.
Sturdy said his party hopes to make this a requirement going forward.
If elected, the Liberals have promised to appoint an independent panel that would re-evaluate how political donations are made.
The BC NDP also said that contributions have no impact on its policies. “Donations have no effect on the party’s position,” said Glen Sanford, deputy director of the party.
Corporate donations are less likely to sway the NDP because the party receives most of its donations from individual donors, he said.
Sanford said cash from individual donors made up 61 per cent of the more than $6 million his party raised in 2016.
On the other hand, he said, money from individual donors made up about 36 per cent of the more than $13 million made by the BC Liberals in the same time period.
However, that has not stopped the BC NDP from taking large donations from organizations, as numbers from Elections BC show that the party received more than $672,000 from the United Steelworkers union in 2016.
Media reports have also revealed the union has admitted to paying for the salaries of BC NDP campaign staff members, such as Sanford, who was reportedly hired directly by the steelworkers. The party also received $53,500 from Woodfibre LNG between 2014 and 2016, unrelated to the alleged improper donations involving the BC Liberals.
Such large contributions from single sources have called into question the NDP’s promises to put an end to large donations from wealthy individuals or organizations. “This election is too important to give Christy Clark an advantage – she’s already able to outspend us massively,” countered Sanford. “We play by the existing rules, but we’ve made it very clear that when we’re in government, we’re going to change those rules.”
However, some are questioning both parties’ assertions that donations do not affect their candidates.
“I don’t believe that,” said Maxwell Cameron, a professor in the department of political science at the University of B.C. “That said, I do believe that governments try to do the right thing.”
However, the contributions are a problem in that, at the very least, they create the appearance of misconduct, he said.
“In a subtle way, it begins to corrupt the political process,” he added.
Cameron said any promises made by parties to reform political donations should be treated with skepticism.
And while some have said the thousands of dollars donated by Woodfibre are too small to influence parties such as the Liberals and NDP, which have millions in their coffers, Cameron said that “by any standard, this is a significant amount.”
It stands in stark contrast to federal politics, he said, where unions and corporations can’t contribute at all, and donations are capped at a few thousand dollars. “I would argue there should be no corporate contributions and that we should cap contributions to something in the neighbourhood of a thousand dollars,” Cameron said.
He also said even if the money doesn’t trickle down to individual MLAs or candidates, it still can influence politicians because they are still beholden to party leaders.
As for which party would be more likely to reform the political donation system, he said he would bet on whichever group has the least to lose from the reforms.
The B.C. Green Party, Cameron noted, said last year it will not accept donations from unions or corporations.
Dana Taylor, the Sea to Sky MLA candidate for the Green party, said his party would ban corporate and union donations and put caps on individual contributions.
“As long as you have money leading policy, you have a government by donation as a result,” he said. “There’s no question that’s a problem.”
The party said in its platform that it would bar non-residents of B.C. from donating. The Greens would also ban Cabinet members from partisan fundraising activities and explore similar restrictions for MLAs.
“The timing of those began during the environmental assessment process,” said Taylor of Woodfibre’s donations to the Liberals. “How can one not make the connection? You’d have to be blind and stupid not to make the connection.”
The proposed Squamish-area Woodfibre LNG liquefied natural gas plant has been a divisive topic in the community for some time, though the revelations about its donations have increased public scrutiny.
When prompted for comment, the company would only provide a brief emailed statement.
Spokesperson Jennifer Siddon wrote:
“Woodfibre LNG Limited and Mr. Giraud have made donations, including the purchase of tickets to fundraisers, to various political parties and candidates. Woodfibre LNG and Mr. Giraud have always been upfront and transparent in reporting any donations. As you are aware, there is an investigation into political donations underway. Until the investigation is complete, we are advised not to make any further public comments.”
The company has received a licence from the National Energy Board to export a maximum of 3.34-billion cubic metres of natural gas annually for 40 years.
That’s the equivalent of up to 1.3 million Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of natural gas per year.
Proponents say that it would be a boon for the local economy, though critics have raised concerns about the environmental impact of the proposed project.