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BC Liberals' rodeo fundraiser highlights 'Wild West' of campaign finance, critic says

Annual event at Fall Fair will feature natural gas minister
MLA Mike Bernier says campaign contributions are a measure of local support.

A Victoria non-profit calling for campaign finance reform says there should be limits on what you can pay to watch chuckwagons with cabinet ministers.   

Peace River South MLA and Education Minister Mike Bernier will take in the races at the Dawson Creek Fall Fair along with Liberal donors and Natural Gas Minister Rich Coleman on August 11.

This year's rodeo event, hosted by the BC Liberals Peace River South Riding Association, has a get-in price of $100 with up to $7,500 for "platinum" sponsorship packages. According to an invitation, the event is "an opportunity to personally connect with provincial and community leaders."

Bernier said most of his donors are local and that contributions don't buy special treatment. But Kai Nagata, a campaigner with the Dogwood Initiative, said the rodeo fundraiser and similar events across the province highlight the "Wild West" nature of campaign finance in B.C.

"The key question is: can you derive a benefit to your business or your personal interest by donating money to political decision makers?" he said. "When you have the natural gas minister coming in, who's responsible for permits, approvals and regulation over an industry in which a lot of people have a vested interest, there's a reasonable question raised by large donations as to whether there's an expectation of a quid pro quo."

B.C. is one of four jurisdictions in Canada without a limit on individual, union or corporate campaign donations. The province also has no restricitons on donations from outside Canada. 

The issue of campaign finance was thrust into the spotlight last month with the revelation that Premier Christy Clark's salary is "topped up" with money from the BC Liberal party.

An Insights West poll conducted late last month found 86 per cent of respondents supported limits on political contributions. On average, poll respondents supported limiting campaign donations to around $700 a year.

At that level, "you're supporting your candidate, you probably know them personally, you live with their decisions, you probably see them on the weekends. Most British Columbians would probably believe that's totally reasonable," Nagata said  

Bernier said he sees contributions as a measure of local support.

"It's one of the necessities obviously when you're running elections, you need funds to buy signs and advertising," he said. "What's really important is I have a great relationship with a lot of community businesses, a lot of businesses that support the region. It's great to have those relationships when, in turn, they come out to support me in the election."

Nagata said the Dogwood Initiative poll shows that most British Columbians are skeptical of large donations to political parties.  

"Ninety per cent agreed the purpose of donations is not an altruistic love for democratic elections, it's an investment in future decisions," he said. 

Nagata added that the 2015 federal election showed millions of dollars can be raised for political campaigns through small contributions.

The Dogwood Initiative is also campaigning for a ban on oil tankers on the B.C. Coast and has been active against the Woodfibre LNG facility in Squamish.

Tale of the finance reports  

Bernier raised $17,241.37 from donors during the 2013 election, according to campaign finance reports. In all, his campaign spent $107,254.36, with around $85,000 covered by party transfers.

Five contributions to Bernier's campaign were for less than $250—below Elections BC's disclosure threshold.

Another nine made contributions larger than $250—most of them local businesses. The largest donor was Busy Bee Signs and Graphics, which put around $4,200 towards the campaign.

The South Peace B.C. NDP received around $4,000 from party transfers to run the 2013 election, records show, while the B.C. Conservatives brought in $3,500 from mostly individual contributions.

According to financial reports released in April, the BC Liberals have a three-to-one fundraising advantage over the B.C. NDP.

The next provincial election is set for May 2017.

Peace River South BC Liberals 2013 Election Financing Report for Mike Bernier by Jonny Wakefield