VICTORIA — With the votes counted and the election signs taken down, B.C. taxpayers are now on the hook for up to half of campaign spending by the three main political parties.
The exact amount will depend on filings by the New Democrats, B.C. Liberals and Greens and on vetting by Elections B.C.
But the tab will run to the millions of dollars.
Under amendments to the Election Act by the New Democrats with support of the Greens, parties are eligible to be reimbursed for 50 per cent of their expenditures on staff, advertising, polling, signs, offices and other campaign expenses.
A party must have garnered “at least five per cent of the votes cast in a general election” to qualify for the payback.
The NDP, Liberals and Greens all crossed the threshold, having taken 48 per cent, 34 per cent and 15 per cent of the vote, respectively. The total payout is capped at 50 per cent of the maximum spending limit for parties, which was $4.4 million in the recent campaign.
The New Democrats and Liberals probably spent close to the limit, so each would be eligible to claim up to $2.2 million. The Greens are not likely to have spent to the limit so will probably claim less.
As well, individual candidates for the respective parties are eligible for reimbursement for up to 50 per cent of the $66,000 cap on expenditures for local campaigns. A candidate must have received at least 10 per cent of the votes in the electoral district to qualify.
The B.C. Liberals crossed the 10 per cent threshold in each of the province’s 87 ridings. The New Democrats fell short in only one, Peace River North.
Assuming New Democrats and Liberals spent to the limit at the local level, each party could claim a further $2.9 million or so on behalf of its local candidates.
The Greens accumulated at least 10 per cent of the vote in only 57 of the 75 ridings where they ran candidates. But not likely did the party spend to the limit in most of the campaigns where it would otherwise qualify for reimbursement.
Eligible political parties and their candidates have 90 days from election day, Oct. 24, to quantify their respective claims in filings with Elections B.C.
On a rough estimate the New Democrats and Liberals could each be in line to collect up to $5 million in reimbursements and the Greens $2 million to $3 million. Those amounts are in addition to the annual cash subsidies, which were also provided under the NDP-authored changes in the Election Act.
The payouts are calculated on votes cast for a given party in the 2017 election, starting at $2.50 a vote in the first year and declining to $1.75 in 2022.
Since the first payments were made on Jan. 1, 2018, the New Democrats and B.C. Liberals have each collected $5.4 million and the Greens $2.2 million.
Direct cash payments to political parties were a major departure from what NDP leader John Horgan said in the 2017 election campaign.
He mocked the suggestion from then-Premier Christy Clark that a Horgan government would directly subsidize political parties.
“It’s always alternative facts with the premier,” Horgan said at the time. “The premier in all her distortions — she said my preference was taxpayers pay for political parties. That’s just not the case.
“Again, more distortion, more fabrication, more making stuff up for the premier,” he continued, when the issue was raised a second time. “At no time have I said that I prefer to make public dollars responsible for political parties.”
But in an early indication that Horgan’s word cannot always be trusted, when safely ensconced in office, he tabled legislation to replace voluntary big money donations from unions and corporations with compulsory big money donations from taxpayers.
Initially, Horgan claimed that “this is what we campaigned on.” Later, he changed his story to say “this is a transition fund and it will be gone at the end of this mandate.”
But that wasn’t completely true either. The reimbursement for campaign expenses is permanent. Only the annual subsidy for parties is subject to review by a legislature committee, post 2022.
The Horgan subsidies also exceeded a commitment in the power-sharing agreement with the Greens. It had promised a review of “campaign finance” but made no mention of cash payments to parties.
Washing his hands of the shift was Andrew Weaver of the Greens. “We did not push for the subsidy,” he told reporters back in 2017. “We did not bring that to the table.”
Nevertheless, he tried to provide cover of sorts for the premier’s broken promise: “Mr. Horgan during the election campaign probably wasn’t thinking the whole thing through.”
The B.C. Liberals voted against the subsidy. “Political parties should raise their own money and not turn to taxpayers,” said then critic and later party leader Andrew Wilkinson.
But once the legislation passed, the Liberals took the money and continue to do so. Elections B.C. data on fundraising by the parties from their own supporters explains why: the Liberals this year trailed the New Democrats in fundraising by $1.5 million.
On that basis, it will be interesting to see where the Liberals stand on extending the subsidy past the 2022 expiry date.
For all Horgan’s hypocrisy in establishing cash payments to political parties, the Liberals now need the money more than the NDP.
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