I spoke to city council at city hall today. Here’s what happened.

Today the Standing Committee of Council on Planning, Transportation and  Environment (basically city council, but a committee so public comments can be heard) met, and one of the agenda items was re: voluntary campaign finance measures.

Compared to other levels of government, municipal campaign spending is crazy in Vancouver. Last election in 2011, two parties each spent over $2 million during the campaign period. Other parties spent much less. All parties had a majority of their contributions come from corporations and unions (i.e. not individual voters). In comparison, candidates for federal elections have a budget of approximately $100,000 during the official election period.

Up for discussion

The issue today wasn’t so much whether municipal campaign financing needs to be changed. Council already supports changes to the legislation (controlled by the BC provincial government) to rein in spending. However, the BC government isn’t playing along. The question today was whether council should create an all-party committee to encourage voluntary adoption of the campaign finance regulations council has already agreed to lobby the BC government on. You can read the entire original motion here. Part A was already adopted. Part B was up for debate today.

My involvement

Last night I decided to sign up to speak in front of the committee. (This is quite easy to do – just send an email and you’re on the list. Read more here and here.) It was a last minute decision triggered by an email I got from the Green Party of Vancouver, as good governance and a healthy democracy are important values I hold. [In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a new member of the Green Party of Vancouver. I also support much of what Vision Vancouver stands for, and have attended some Vision events, but the way that partisan politics works it’s hard to actively support more than one party. I have voted a mixture of Vision Vancouver, NPA, Green and COPE in the past. I am connected to Andrea Reimer and Adriane Carr in a non-partisan way through my volunteer work with Canadian Women Voters Congress.]

Overall

Overall the experience was a positive one for me. It was my first time (it seems that the three other speakers were regular visitors to committee) and I think the questions I received were fair and nonconfrontational. It was clear by the line of questions by councillors that their decisions had already been made going into the meeting. However, I don’t feel that in order to feel “heard” that councillors should have changed their minds. It’s possible to listen, and still disagree. I believe the value in speakers is the raising of issues and ideas that otherwise councillors may not hear. I suspect that council would really appreciate other first timers or non-regulars at their meetings.

Learning about council(lors)

Sitting in on the meeting, in council chambers, and listening to councillor questions to city staff, presentations by other citizens (there were four of us on the agenda), questions to those presenters, and the final “debate” (each councillor speaking for five minutes) was very educational. One, it was great to see the public side of council debate.

Two, I got a bit of a better sense of who the individual politicians were. Questions came most frequently from Councillors Affleck (NPA), Carr (Green), Stevenson (Vision), and Reimer (Vision). Councillors Affleck and Ball (NPA) came across as sympathetic to the issue, but concerned about possible implications. Not spindoctored. Councillor Carr (who originally put forward the motion) asked engaging questions. Vision folks, wow. I was so not impressed generally. So much fear mongering. So much worst case scenario. Leading questions that were more about grandstanding than an actual question. Steveson was a jerk. No questions at all from Councillors Jang, Tang, and Louie (Vision). Councillors Meggs and Deal (Vision) each asked a few questions, but I couldn’t see them from where I was sitting. Councillor Reimer was tough but fair (i.e. better have your facts straight) though she belittled one presenter who spoke about campaign disclosure statements being tough to find on the city website by stating that she pulled them up in two minutes while he was talking. [I did the test myself, and I agree with the presenter. I did a vancouver.ca search for “2011 election spending” “2011 campaign spending” and “how much did political parties spend in 2011” with ZERO relevant results. After also trying to use website navigation to no luck, I tried “2011 campaign disclosure” and had success. However, the word disclosure is not a word an average citizen would know to use.]

My views

While I stand by my comments shared below, and spoke today to raise important issues in front of councillors, in reality I think the best method to get buy-in for voluntary measures is through a pledge drafted by a civil society organization that individual candidates, parties, and third parties can publicly sign on to. There might even be a role for negotiation (i.e. “we’ll sign on if they sign on”.) I don’t necessarily think that a committee of the City is the best venue for urging voluntary measures. However, I don’t think the world would fall apart (which, if you believed most councillors, it would) with voluntary measures. Most councillors (all NPA and Vision councillors voted against the motion) seemed interested in the answer to one question: “What is the worst that could happen if voluntary measures are urged by council?” I think three other important questions should also have been considered:

  • What is the best case scenario if voluntary measures are urged by council?
  • What is the worst case scenario if the status quo remains?
  • What is the best case scenario if the status quo remains?

These questions would get a much richer discussion.

My speaking notes

(Note: I fumbled a bit, so this may not exactly match what I actually said, but it’s pretty much the same.)

Thank you Madame Chair for the opportunity to speak today.

My name is Trina Isakson, and I am here to speak in support of part B of the motion. I will speak to the alignment of voluntary measures with recognized best practices in campaign finance regulation.

I speak today as an individual citizen and resident of the City of Vancouver.

I believe that, in the absence of amendments to the Vancouver Charter, the committee should urge parties, candidates, and third parties to agree to voluntary campaign finance reform measures, for three main reasons:

  1. to create an informed voter base,
  2. to support the successful political participation of women, people of colour, and others who face barriers in the electoral process, and
  3. to uphold Vancouver’s image as one of a progressive city that leads rather than follows in its progressive activities.

Firstly, the 2004 Supreme Court majority decision of Harper v. Canada indicated that, quote “the overarching objective of the spending limits is electoral fairness” end quote.

The decision later goes on to read, quote “In the absence of spending limits, it is possible for the affluent or a number of persons pooling their resources and acting in concert to dominate the political discourse, depriving their opponents of a reasonable opportunity to speak and be heard, and undermining the voter’s ability to be adequately informed of all views.  Equality in the political discourse is thus necessary for meaningful participation in the electoral process and ultimately enhances the right to vote” end quote.

The Mayor’s own Engaged City Task Force final report describes the drawbacks of unlimited campaign spending in relation to citizens’ interactions with City Hall. Quote “the large sums of money raised and spent in civic elections fosters cynicism towards City Hall’s decision-making process and discourages or prevents new voices from getting involved, particularly youth, newcomers and new immigrants” end quote.

If members of the committee support informed electoral participation, it will vote in favour of this motion and urge parties, individuals and third parties to opt in.

Secondly, a large determining factor for individuals’ decisions to run for elected office is personal financial resources and ability to attract money. This also is often a determining factor in political party’s support of and selection of candidates for general election.

In the publication Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers, by the the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, author Richard Matland states that, quote “personal ambition is tempered by an assessment of the resources the candidate can generate to help in the campaign” end quote.

People opt out of running for office when they don’t feel they have the necessary resources, including financial ones.

When there are no campaign spending limits, even when a candidate is supported by a party, the amount of money a political aspirant sees as necessary to bring in or contribute to a campaign goes up, excluding people with lower incomes.

Because of the weaker political and financial networks and resources had by women, people of colour, and other historically marginalized populations, the people who seek office do not accurately represent the people they wish to serve.

While political parties in Vancouver can be commended for putting forward diverse slates, this diversity does not accurately indicate the otherwise qualified individuals who opt out before even joining the campaign conversation, because of their lesser financial resources.

If members of the committee support social justice and diverse participation in elected municipal councils, it will vote in favour of this motion.

Finally, if the Provincial government doesn’t amend Bill 20 as requested, don’t let that stop us. The City of Vancouver has been voluntarily progressive through initiatives such as Greenest City 2020 and the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force.

If members of the committee wish to uphold the City’s image and their parties’ images as progressive and ethic leaders, especially in times when not required to by law, it will vote in favour of this motion.

Based on the questions asked by many council members, it would seem many will dismiss this motion because it is non-enforceable. It seems there is an assumption that parties and third parties might opt-in then opt-out, or opt-in but not report until after the election that they didn’t follow the voluntary measures. I’d like to think more highly of our candidates and their supporters. It would seem the harm of voluntary measures would be to self-interest, not to democracy.

Thank you for your time.

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