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GEORGE: Appearance of impropriety comes with campaign donations

August 15, 2017 - 4:48 PM

"I value my reputation. I work hard to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. "- Richard Hanna, Republican Congressman from New York

Appearances matter in our legal system and especially in our politics.

Confidence in our system of political representation, when measured by voter turnout, is not great in British Columbia and even the appearance of impropriety or corruption does little to improve the situation.

The appearance of integrity and propriety, in this case, is thus at least as important as the actuality in our elected officials. Luckily voters in British Columbia have an excellent tool for measuring both the appearance and the actuality that relies only on their own curiosity and willingness to take a couple of minutes to satisfy it.

I am speaking of the excellent Financial Reports and Political Contributions System (FRPCS) that is maintained by Elections BC under legislation introduced in the early 1970s by the Barrett government. It would do us well to remember that prior to 1975 there was no obligation for candidates to disclose their business and personal financial interests, or who was contributing to their election campaigns.

I imagine it wasn't easy to access this information in those days for people living outside Victoria or the Lower Mainland, but the ease of access today is top notch.

The Mars water bomber is a public favourite in British Columbia, a province noted for its difficult terrain and many small lakes. For decades, when our forests were on fire, the Mars was at work and seen to be at work, especially around Port Alberni where it was based. So when the province declined to renew the Contract with the Coulson Group (the owners of the Mars) and instead chose several of Conair Group's Fireboss aircraft as its replacement, people were disappointed and have been vocal about that disappointment every fire season since, including in July of 2014 when a petition with over 19,000 signatures was delivered to then Premier Christy Clark at her West Kelowna constituency office.

Many people, including the B.C. government, make the point that the Mars is not flexible enough to meet all of the requirements of those geographic realities. The Mars is a specialized tool, a big hammer if you will. It won't work on small shallow lakes, it won't work in steep, constrained terrain, it can't be used where crews and equipment are working on the ground and it won't work if you need to pull a screw out of a board.

Where it will work is where its strengths can be best utilized. Right now that is on the mainly flat and rolling terrain between Highway 97 and the foothills of the Coast range. The size and isolation of some of the fires burning north and east of Alexis Creek would benefit from the attention the Mars and its crews could deliver. The plane itself is currently being repaired after scraping bottom on a smaller lake during an airshow.

What does any of this have to do with the appearance of impropriety? Well, a quick examination of the FRPCS raises some interesting questions. Coulson Group has made exactly one political donation during its history. It was for $5,000, eleven days prior to the May 9, 2013 provincial election. The donation was to the BCNDP, and given the polls at the time, likely given for the basest of reasons. Conair Group, on the other hand, had a long history of making political donations, including exactly one donation to the BCNDP seven days before the same election, likely in reaction to the same polls those in the Coulson Group were reading.

The polls were rather famously wrong, of course, so both contributions, if made in the hopes of influencing the government during the upcoming awarding of the lucrative air tanker retainer contracts, were made in vain. The interesting thing here, when it comes to appearances, is that Conair Group also donated $106,050 to the B.C. Liberal Party between 2005 and 2014, the last one for $7,500 on May 29.

This total includes $6,000 contributions made directly to candidates (including then Premier Gordon Campbell) and $5,800 to Michael De Jong's failed leadership bid for the B.C. Liberals.

The appearances suck. And remember, British Columbia is currently on fire.

Coulson Group has offered its heavy lift helicopters and its unique (in British Columbia) ability to fly those helicopters at night. That it has been rebuffed in its offer to put those assets to work, purely from the perspective of how it appears given the above record of political contributions, also sucks.

Make of all this what you will. It certainly is time to fix our current campaign contribution system, if for no other reason than to reduce the temptation of our elected officials to throw appearances under the bus, along with the voter's confidence in the system itself.

I look forward to holding the incoming government's feet to the fire on campaign finance reform. Voters should be confident that it is their voice that is heard the loudest by their government in Victoria, not the voices of those with a special interest in the outcome of government decisions.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
InfoTel News Ltd

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