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B.C. Politics Has A 'Dark Money' Problem

12/09/2015 01:01 EST | Updated 12/09/2016 05:12 EST
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They're the forgotten cousins of political donors, a beast that's neither corporate nor union: trade associations.

If you have a shingle to hang, there's one out there for you, even for the shingle maker.

There are associations for brewers, vinters, distillers and beverage licensees; for the owners of golf courses, apartment buildings, shopping centres, and the operators of wharfs and convenience stores.

Many are known to donate generously to political parties, particularly when they want to curry favour.

In the U.S. it's called "dark money," a way to spend big bucks on politics and remain relatively anonymous.

It doesn't have the same bad rap in B.C. yet, but it's problematic.

In tracking the donations of 116 associations over the last 10 years, 106 have donated more than $4.1 million to the British Columbia Liberal Party, with $2.6 million of that coming from just 10 associations.

Fifty-eight of the associations donated $715,986 to the B.C. NDP. Nine of the 10 most generous with the Liberals found $282,725 for the NDP.

Coming in tops for both parties was the New Car Dealers Association of B.C. which, since 2005, has given $1.08 million to the Liberals and $82,790 to the NDP.

The Cement Association of Canada has donated $142,920 to the Liberals, with $105,500 of that donated in 2012 and 2013, just as the B.C. government was conducting a review of the carbon tax.

Canada's National Brewers Association has donated $125,191 to the Liberals, $44,596 of it between 2013 and 2014.

The B.C. Wine Institute gave the bulk of their donations ($14,068 of $15,523) in the same two year period as well.

You might almost think a review into liquor policies was underway.

The Big 10 -- the most generous of the generous -- are interesting not just for the size of their donations, but the fluctuations from one year to the next.

Drop the year where they gave the most and that outlier year jumps off the page with more than a handful of them.

Coast Forest Products Association gave an average of $3,698 annually to the B.C. Liberals between 2005 and 2014, except for 2009, when they gave $53,500.

The Construction Labour Relations Association gave an average of $8,735 to the Liberals, except for 2009, when they gave $53,238.

The B.C. Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association gave an average of $3,148, except for 2009, when they donated $112,610, including a cheque for $110,000.

Must have been some bake sale.

In 2010, the association's president told the Globe and Mail that it restricts political spending to election years and planned to donate the same amount in 2013.

Not even close. In 2013, they donated $2,550 and reported spending less than $500 during the election.

These aren't the types of groups that raise money through car washes.

Annual membership fees in the New Car Dealers Association range from $550 to $2,750.

Takes a lot of membership dues -- over and above an association's operating expenses -- to be able to donate $1.16 million to political parties as the New Car Dealers did.

When you go from donating $1,775 in one year to $112,610 the next -- as the Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association did from 2008 to 2009 -- it raises obvious questions over where the extra money came from: a healthy bank balance or a one-time membership appeal?

It's not a groundless fear, the Election Act speaks to this very issue.

Under existing rules a third-party sponsor must report all contributions of money "beginning six months before an election is called and ending at the close of voting."

Therein lies the problem: unless an association spends money during an election -- and registers with Elections B.C. -- there's no requirement for an association to report the donors behind any political donations it may make or account for its pre-election spending.

Since it never advertised during the 2013 election, whoever kicked in for Jim Shepard's reported $1-million ad blitz -- under the guise of Concerned Citizens for B.C. -- will forever remain a mystery.

It's not chump change being tossed into party coffers.

In 2006, the Big 10 donated $64,313 to the Liberals, three years later they gave $503,202, and in 2013 they forked out $501,263.

That's a lot of top-up cash.

Note: All contributions for the 116 associations are sourced from the Elections B.C. database for donations over $250. Searches were also done on all possible variations of an association's name or use of acronym.

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