Friday, 17 January 2014


The Province is nearing its deadline for receiving submissions on municipal campaign finance reform. 

Municipal legislation in BC distinguishes between a councilor’s conflict of pecuniary interest and his or her conflict of political interests. A conflict of political interest arises when a politician votes for a matter that directly concerns a constituent who has funded his or her campaign. As the law stands, it is not treated as a conflict at all if the contribution has been disclosed. 

 A conflict of pecuniary interest (where a councilor has a direct or indirect financial interest in a matter) can result in an immediate disqualification from public office. 

Conflicts of political interests are treated as the norm. It is not an offense for a councilor to vote on a matter that involves a significant contributor to a politician’s campaign as long as the donation to the party or individual has been disclosed.

The law engages the legal fiction that an incumbent politician does not have a direct or indirect pecuniary economic interest in remaining in office. This enables a form of systemic corruption. It has become wide spread and corrosive on every continent and all countries are trying to deal with it one way or another.

Harvard Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig, in his recent book, “Republic Lost, how money corrupts Congress – and a plan to stop it" describes systemic it this way:

This corruption has two elements, each of which feeds the other. The first element is bad governance, which simply means that our government doesn't track the expressed will of the people, whether on the left or on the right. Instead, the government tracks a different interest, one not directly affected by votes or voters. Democracy on this account seems to be a show or a ruse; power rests elsewhere. The second element is lost trust: when democracy seems a charade, we lose faith in its process. That doesn't matter to some of us – we will vote and participate regardless. But to more rational souls, the charade is a signal: spend your time elsewhere, because this game is not for real. Participation thus declines, especially among the sensible middle. Policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends.”

Lessig’s observation perfectly describes the situation at the municipal level in Vancouver and much of BC today. Two major parties are primarily funded by large donors. Voter turnout has fallen precipitously.

Vancouver’s at large system of elections doesn't help. Each candidate represents the entire population of the City. They can only become known if they belong to a well-funded party. Reform of any kind is promoted primarily by one group of candidates- the unelected. It is opposed by those who made it to office under whatever system exists. The Electors' Action Movement (TEAM) in the 1970s promised the Ward System when it was out of office. So did COPE. Once they were elected however, their reformist zeal quickly dissipated.

The Provincial Government, correctly in my view, insists that the laws dealing with election reform must be province wide.  They should not be left to each local government. To accomplish reform truly requires the wisdom of Solomon because it involves compromises of 
fundamental principles that are central to democracy.

In any big city that has an at large system where candidates can win only if they belong to a well funded political party, the electorate’s choice is filtered and thereby restricted by the party. 

If you have faith in democracy, the filter should be removed. One way of doing that is by limiting the maximum amount that can be donated by any one individual, corporation or union.

That solution is deceptively easy.  The obvious way to evade the dollar limit is by 3rd party advertising. So we also have to limit advertisements and public comments, at least around election time. But this involves an even more difficult trade off. Free speech is a fundamental right. Democracy requires that people be free to advocate what they choose particularly at election time. It is drastically abridged by limiting and punishing 3rd party advocates.

Another approach is not to impose limitations on donations at all but to treat as a conflict of interest  voting on a matter concerning the interests of donors who contribute more than some predetermined amount. If a developer contributes, for example, less than $1500 to a  political party or individual, and then later in the year has a matter before council, as long as the councilor has disclosed it he can vote. If the donation, however, is above the prescribed limit then he must not participate in a debate or vote.

One problem with that solution, however, is that it conflicts with Newton’s third law of politics: For every ethical action there is an equal and opposite chance for evasion.

It is not just the elected politicians who are vulnerable to corruption. Dealing with the problems relating to staff is just as difficult if not more so.   Planners and engineers can look forward to continuing their careers as consultants. Most of their outside the hall job offerings do not come from community groups. 

 Previous municipal experience looks very good on a resume’ when applying to a large firm of architects or engineers or as a consultant to a government. Even being fired by the City can be used as an effective promotional tool. The Provincial Program on electoral reform does not deal with maintaining the integrity of the bureaucracy but it is every bit as important.

The Supreme Court of Canada in a series of decisions has favoured local governments over citizens whenever there are ambiguities in legislation. The legislature has followed suit. The Local Government Act and Vancouver Charter require that bylaws be very broadly construed in favour of the city. The fact that municipal bylaws are hopelessly ambiguous is an open invitation to corruption. If neither a neighbor or a developer knows what a bylaw is trying to say then the matter is left to a planner's or engineer's discretion. The Province should delete the presumption in favour of the government. 

The proposed West End Plan as well as the Vancouver Budget are open invitations to pay offs. Therefore, to the extent that electoral reform takes aim at corruption, the amount of discretion that can be delegated to officials should be curtailed. That is what the rule of law is all about.

I would favour the creation of an independent municipal tribunal that deals with issues of ethics. Whenever one of these questions arises as to whether a proposed vote or other action complies with the conflict of interest regulations, a Councilor could request a prompt decision as to whether he may vote or participate in the matter or whether he is in a conflict and should step down. If the City of Vancouver can afford a flock of twitterers in its PR department, it could pay for a one or two person ethics commissioner who does not report to the manager and who would provide decisions in writing. 


  1. Issues of ethics are important for each sphere of human interaction. And if the conflict occurs it should be solved in a consensus-building way. Conflicts concerning money are the hottest and especially cash lending in the USA.

  2. Jonathan,
    You've made some valid points, however, I must correct you regarding TEAM following through on their election promise. We did in fact do so. A referendum was held in October of 1973 and it narrowly failed. Am I right in saying Cope held one as well when they were in power? If I recall correctly it also narrowly failed. This is an important correction as your original assertion paints an incorrect, unfavourable impression of these two electoral organizations.

    I would also point out the NPA had never even contemplated a ward system of any sort.

    A full ward system has it's own conflict of interest problems and tends to fragment rather than bring the City together.

    I am still of the mind that a partial ward and at large system would better serve Vancouver voters.

    Bill McCreery, Vice Chair TEAM