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BC Election Plan Gives BC Liberals Cash Windfall PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Wednesday, 23 February 2005 01:51

British Columbia Election Plan Gives BC Liberals Cash Windfall

The Tyee: By shutting down the legislature instead of debating the budget, the party can campaign on the taxpayers' millions.


Mon., Feb. 21st 2005

Will McMartin

The Tyee.ca

B.C. Liberal MLAs seeking re-election on May 17 will have a taxpayer-funded advantage of at least $2 million over their unelected opponents if, as is widely expected, the Campbell government recesses the legislature around the end of February to prevent detailed debate of its budget.

Until budget day on February 15, observers believed the Legislative Assembly would remain in session until April 19, when the election writ is due to be dropped. A 28-day campaign would follow, ending in the long-scheduled vote on May 17.

But the Liberals let slip their intention to push through an early recess of the House. That would prevent the NDP opposition from scrutinizing the governments 2005-06 spending plans and criticizing the government in the daily question period. Cabinet ministers and Liberal backbenchers have openly acknowledged that MLAs will return to their respective ridings to sell the recent budget over the seven- or eight-week period leading up to formal dissolution of the House for the election campaign.

Heres where the money comes in: MLAs are paid $75,100 per year and are given $7,000 a month for staff and communications in their individual ridings, plus about $3,000 a month to maintain constituency offices.

As well, they receive considerable funds to assist them at the legislature  funds pooled in each of the Liberal and NDP caucuses. Government backbenchers are allocated $67,903 each, and cabinet minister $33,952. The 73-member Liberal caucus (excluding the Speaker and the recently retired Gary Collins) receives nearly $4,000,000 a year. In contrast, the three-member NDP caucus, which includes the recently elected Jagrup Brar, is allocated about $700,000 a year.

Two million reasons

Overall, calculations by The Tyee show that the total, taxpayer-funded advantage for Liberal MLAs seeking re-election will be $2,160,935 over seven weeks, and $2,469,640 over eight, in salary and support in the period preceding dissolution of the legislature.

In effect, the Liberals will begin the election campaign using taxpayer money, several weeks before the writ is actually dropped. Their non-incumbent opponents will receive no such assistance, thereby putting them at a massive electoral and financial disadvantage.

MLAs and staffers in Victoria and the constituencies continue to receive public monies during the formal 28-day campaign, but staff are strictly prohibited from partisan or political activities (even though the legislators seeking re-election clearly have a vested interest in being returned to office). Staffers who assist in the election campaign must take a vacation or an unpaid leave to do so.

Those rules are clear for the formal campaign but not for the seven- or eight-week interregnum  between the anticipated recess and the dropping of the election writ.

Blurring the line

Is a sitting MLA who holds a budget consultation in his or her constituency office campaigning for re-election, or merely serving local residents? Is a constituency assistant who canvasses service organizations for speaking engagements for an MLA undertaking a political task, or just helping people stay informed of legislative developments?

More to the point, if the House is not sitting in March and April, what will research and political staffers in Victoria do other than try to help their MLAs win re- election?

The financial benefits are greatest for the Liberals, who have more than 60 MLAs seeking re-election, and miniscule for the New Democrats, who have just Jenny Kwan and Jagrup Brar hoping to return to the legislature. B.C.s many fringe parties, including Unity, the Conservatives, and the Greens, have no advantage at all.

This unfair electoral situation has arisen in part because the Liberals themselves introduced a fixed-election date and a fixed-budget date within weeks of taking power in 2001.

Attorney General Geoff Plant amended the Constitution Act to require a general election on May 17, 2005, and thereafter every four years on the second Tuesday in May. Then-finance minister Gary Collins introduced the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act, which obliges the minister of finance to present the annual budget and main estimates for a fiscal year beginning April 1 on the third Tuesday in February in the immediately preceding fiscal year. 

This affords the legislature an extended opportunity to debate the budget speech and accompanying estimates (the allocation for each ministry, legislative office and government agency) and approve the estimates before the start of the fiscal year.

Reforms subverted

This was a noble plan. Too often in recent decades, the government of the day  Social Credit or NDP  failed to introduce a budget and estimates before the beginning of a new fiscal period. This was especially so in general election years.

Perhaps the most egregious example occurred in 1983 when British Columbia was mired in the second-worst recession of the 20th century. Nearing the end of its electoral mandate, the Social Credit government led by Bill Bennett refused to present a budget before the start of the fiscal year for fear it would reveal the worrisome deterioration of the provinces finances. Instead, the government called a general election for May 5. It was not until July 7  more than three months into the new fiscal period  that British Columbians learned of the horrendous deficits facing their province with the introduction of the Socreds restraint budget.

In 1996, Glen Clarks NDP government introduced a budget on April 30  a month into the new fiscal year  and later that same day called a general election for May 28. After winning re-election, the Clark government re-introduced a budget and estimates identical to those presented before the writ was dropped. Within days, however, new finance minister Andrew Petter conceded that neither the 1995-'96 nor 1996-'97 documents were balanced, as had been promised prior to the election. Both became known as the fudge-it budgets.

The NDP did it

Such scenarios no longer can occur thanks to the reforms enacted by the Liberals. In short, in an election year, the new budget law helps electors get a clear picture of the provinces finances before they cast their ballots.

But now the Liberals appear intent on finding another way to replicate the cynical politics of their discredited predecessors.

Clearly there is plenty of time  nine weeks, in fact  for the House to debate and adopt the budget estimates. But Finance Minister Colin Hansen, questioned last week by The Tyee about his legislative timetable, refused to confirm that he or his cabinet colleagues intended to defend this years estimates in the House.

Instead, he allowed only that the budget speech itself would be debated, for the obligatory six days. By weeks end, Hansen and other Liberals were hinting that interim supply would be enacted, which allows the government to spend taxpayers money without giving the budget estimates legislative scrutiny or approval.

Only after the election on May 17  possibly during the summer, but probably as late as next fall  would a newly elected legislature meet to vote on the entire estimates.

Its as cynical a ploy as any seen in B.C. in recent decades.

Last week, the Liberals claimed they were merely doing what the New Democratic Party government did in 1996. Were as bad as the NDP  seems an uninspiring re-election slogan for the Campbell Liberals in 2005, but for the advantage of $2 million in taxpayer-financed campaign funding they may just risk it.

Will McMartin is a political commentator and consultant who has worked for a wide range of political parties.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 February 2005 01:51

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