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Slate Politics: Coming Soon To a B.C. City Hall Near You

Video killed the radio star. But it's Peter Fassbender who is about to kill the independent civic politician.
New Surrey City Hall, the north side. 140920-16
New Surrey City Hall, the north side. 140920-16

Video killed the radio star. But it's Peter Fassbender who is about to kill the independent civic politician.

Last week, the B.C. Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development rolled out legislation that would limit the amount of money municipal candidates could spend on their campaigns.

But this new law will have an unfortunate, unintended consequence -- it will prompt civic politicians across B.C. to run together on slates in order to pool spending limits and allow them to share expenses. Why send out one advertising piece, when you can be on six by running a slate?

"Politics is tricky; it cuts both ways. Every time you make a choice, it has unintended consequences," Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard told Wired in 2008. How does a rock star understand this, and not professional politicians?

Fassbender says he "believes strongly in democracy and people's right to be engaged. If there is too tight a box [around campaign donations], people will say it affects free speech and democracy," he told The Globe and Mail.

He's half-right. There shouldn't be limits on spending, donations or who can give money to campaigns, as long as the voters know the facts before they vote.

Forget limits. Fassbender should bring in pre-election financial disclosure and allow voters to make their own decision about how money influences politicians. Pass a law that forces candidates to publish donors and amounts one week before voting, and stops fundraising in that final week of a campaign. And make sitting politicians disclose donors annually.

Imagine this scenario. A white supremacist (or worse yet, a DEVELOPER or OIL COMPANY EXECUTIVE -- hideous monsters!) gives a mayoralty campaign $200. It's all perfectly legal. Even the most aggressive campaign donation limits would have no trouble with a private citizen, no matter how repugnant, contributing $200.

Of course, you the voter won't know about it until months after the election is over. You'll wander into the voting booth, tick the ballot box, and go on your merry way. You may even smile when your guy wins.

Months later, the front page of the local paper will splash the questionable donation and you'll wonder why this candidate was attractive to this type of donor. By then, it's too late -- your racist-backed mayor still has 45 months in office.

Wouldn't it have been more useful to know who supports those candidates before you voted? Does it matter if the racist gave less than the donation limit? Of course not! Whether $200 or $20,000, voters deserve to know who is supporting candidates before they cast a ballot.

The B.C. Liberals went the proactive route in 2011 during the provincial leadership race. Small money raisers Mike de Jong and George Abbott put out their donors before the vote; big dollar fundraisers Christy Clark and Kevin Falcon were forced to follow suit. B.C. Liberal members were able to decide if any of these donors or dollar amounts should cost a candidate their vote.

In the recent TransLink plebiscite, the No TransLink Tax campaign put out our full donor list before voting started. The TransLink mayors waited until voting was finished to come clean on the millions in tax dollars they spent. And the Yes side is still hiding which individuals, private companies and unions gave them money.

Relatively few cities have slates today, and most B.C. voters seem to prefer independent politicians. If Fassbender's law is passed, more slates are likely to pop up across B.C., simply to pool resources under the low limits. Like provincial and federal political candidates, they'll find it necessary to team up.

The public has until Nov. 27 to comment on Fassbender's plan. Here's hoping voters ask for pre-election disclosure at city halls, not more slate politics.

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