Maxwell A. Cameron: A majority of people in B.C. think their government is essentially an oligarchy. This needs to change
Maxwell A. Cameron, National Post | May 24, 2016 9:56 AM ET
Is British Columbia a democracy in which citizens are governed for the good of all? A recent poll suggests most British Columbians think we live in an oligarchy, in which the few can buy elections.
According to an Insights West poll, 90 per cent of British Columbians think corporations are influential in shaping public policy, and roughly half think they are the most influential group in politics. Likewise, 68 per cent think that citizens do not have much influence over their government.
The survey also found that nine out of every 10 British Columbians favour limits on corporate and union donations; 66 per cent would like to ban private fundraisers; and 76 per cent support a cap on campaign contributions. Yet politicians have so far failed to do the right thing and ban union and corporate donations because political parties raise millions of dollars from them.
But money in politics is bad for three reasons that all politicians should care about.
First, big money in politics is bad for public policy. Good policy is guided by the public interest, and it often involves finding a balance between different goods.
Consider an example. The government is asked to approve a mine. Scientists and environmentalists raise concerns about fish habitat, but the mine could also bring jobs and prosperity to a depressed region, including First Nations communities. The government has to balance competing goods. That’s what politics is all about.
But suppose the mine hires a lobbyist who organizes $5,000-per-plate dinners for the premier. The premier could decide that the mine is in the public interest. But accepting money from those who stand to benefit creates a presumption that the decision was motivated by partisan, or even personal gain.
Second, big money in politics is bad for democracy. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig coined the term “institutional corruption” to describe the effect of money in politics. He argues that not all corruption takes the form of quid pro quo (I give you something, you give me something in return), but that other influences can corrupt government institutions and undermine the public’s trust in them.
Indeed, politicians can act in ways that weaken institutions and undermine the trust of the public, even if their actions are legal. The Conflict of Interest Commissioner’s finding that taking a stipend from the proceeds of private fundraisers is lawful, does not mean it is the right thing to do.
Institutional corruption happens when politicians lose sight of the purpose of the institutions and the people they serve. Without limits on money in politics, politicians become glorified fundraisers. They spend more time chasing campaign contributions and less time representing constituents. This can subtly distort their views. Increasingly, the test of a policy is not, “does this serve the public interest?” but, “will this help me get re-elected by raising money for my party?”
Finally, big money is bad for politics. It creates the impression, now widespread in British Columbia, that ordinary people don’t count. It fosters disengagement and cynicism.
How can we get big money out of politics? A first step would be to conduct a review of British Columbia’s democratic institutions. Such an audit could consider enhancing the powers and independence of the conflict of interest commissioner, adopting a rigorous code of conduct for elected officials and reviewing the use of government advertising.
Just like in federal politics, party and union contributions should be banned and individual contributions should be limited, but also matched with public money. Yes, this means paying for political parties out of the public purse. Call it insurance against oligarchy.
Politicians should also be given ethical training. The Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia offers a Summer Institute for Future Legislators. Such programs should be made available to all elected officials — ideally before they are elected.
As Stephen Jarislowsky, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, which bases its policy decisions on ethical principles, put it: “Elections should be based on a fair contest, not on money that buys the politician. Are politicians not fiduciaries? If so, they should put voters and the public first.”
Maxwell A. Cameron is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.