Posted by: VPSN | March 19, 2010

Giving corporations a vote?

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It may be that there was a big press announcement last fall about Premier Gordon Campbell’s having appointed a joint Task Force to make recommendations for legislative changes to “improve the electoral process for local government elections across B.C.”; if so, we missed it.  Thankfully, a recent CBC radio interview of Bill Bennett, Minister of Community and Rural Development, brought it to my attention.  We believe this should be of interest to anyone concerned about who is involved in local decision-making.

Bill Bennett co-chairs the six-member Task Force with Harry Nyce, president of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) and includes two other UBCM executive members and two provincial MLAs.

Topics under review by the Task Force are:

  • Campaign finance, including contribution/spending disclosure and limits, and tax credits
  • Enforcement processes and outcomes
  • Role of the chief electoral officer (B.C.) in local government elections
  • Election cycle (term of office)
  • Corporate vote
  • Other agreed upon matters, (e.g. matters raised in UBCM resolutions such as eligibility of local government volunteers to be candidates)

The issue that particularly concerns us is the “corporate vote”.  This refers to the proposal that companies located in a B.C. municipality have the right to vote in that municipality’s local election. 

Prior to 1973, participation in local democracy in BC was generally more closely linked with property ownership and the payment of property taxes. E.g., people who owned homes had the vote; those who merely rented suites did not.  And in many B.C. municipalities—although never in the City of Vancouver—corporations (including foreign-owned corporations) could vote in local elections. And there were an unrestricted number of votes – an individual could vote in relation to his or her residence and (via an agent) in relation to as many corporations as he or she owned, thus garnering more than one vote within a single municipality.

Various changes were made in 1973, 1976 and again, in 1993, when the corporate vote was discontinued.

Since the removal of the corporate vote, some business advocacy organizations have called for its restoration.  For example, the BC Chamber of Commerce regularly recommends reinstatement of the corporate vote in its annual resolutions book.

The argument given is that, since companies pay significant amounts of property taxes to the municipality, they should have the right to vote, that local elected officials should be accountable to business taxpayers through the electoral system.  We would argue that paying these taxes is simply one of the costs of doing business—and that the costs are passed along to the consumer, in any case.

More details, both for and against a corporate vote can be found in a discussion paper on this and the other topics under review, on the Task Force website.

The Task Force will accept written comments submitted by April15, 2010.

The Task Force website is at http://www.localelectionstaskforce.gov.bc.ca/

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Responses

  1. Up until 1993, BC’s small businesses could vote in municipal elections. This ability to vote recognised the contributions that small and medium-sized businesses make to the economy and to our communities in general. The decision to rescind the business vote was an historic mistake that must be corrected.

    Like the Boston Tea Party, this is primarily an issue of taxation without representation. BC’s small businesses are being taxed to the breaking point by municipal governments. Over-taxed and under-represented, small and medium sized businesses are the backbone of BC’s economy. If residents in BC were being taxed like businesses are, there would be a tax revolt.

    Small and medium sized businesses account for a majority of all businesses in BC and more than one third of our gross domestic product. A vast majority are small businesses with fewer than five employees, and together they employ over 50 per cent of BC’s private-sector workforce.

    These small “ma & pa” business owners take tremendous personal risks that drive the economy and benefit society in general.

    Historically in Canada, citizens were granted the right to vote based on property and taxation. During the 1970s, the provincial government in BC recognised this same right for businesses based on the principle of “no taxation without representation”. This right was taken away from businesses in 1993.

    Businesses in BC are paying more than four times the property taxes that residents do on the same value property. Yet, they are consuming far less of the services those taxes pay for. – And then they pay for garbage collection on top of that! Is this fair?

    What businesses are essentially asking for through the return of the business vote is fairness in representation.

    You should also explore what businesses do for our communities, how they employ and retain our citizens even during recessions, how they contribute to non-profits and integrate themselves into, and help benefit the communities where we work, live and play.

    Take a look at a local soccer field or baseball diamond. The uniforms the kids are wearing are probably donated by a local business. The coach is likely an employee a local business is paying for but let go early to teach the kids.

    Despite this, we give businesses no tangible, truly meaningful representation in our local governments.

    It is time to restore a single vote for these small businesses that help drive our economy, employ us and give back to our communities. If we did, businesses would get one vote for every ten of ours. This seems fair to me.

    Brian Bonney

    • Since the Terms of Reference for the Local Elections Task Force include the issue of the corporate vote, it’s difficult to restrict a comment to the vote amongst small and medium-sized businesses. If we accept Mr. Bonney’s argument, and we use the practice during the 1970s as the model, we could find ourselves again with business owners having an unrestricted number of votes – an individual could vote in relation to his or her residence and (via an agent) in relation to as many corporations as he or she owned, thus garnering more than one vote within a single municipality. Or, foreign owners and large chains with outlets throughout the province, could vote against provision of some municipal services (possibly everywhere within the province) which residents need but for which there is no business case for corporations.

      There are many municipal services that are of benefit to both residents and businesses (e.g., roads and sidewalks, sewage systems, waterworks, fire and rescue services, and so on). There are other municipal services that are of compelling need to residents and of little or no interest to corporations (e.g., libraries and parks, animal control).

      Leaving aside the complexity of considering a vote for corporations local and foreign, large and small, it seems easy to foresee the possibility of residents’ needs being set aside because of the greater number of corporate voters, whose goals are vastly different than the goals of residents.

      If reduction of business’ property taxes is the compelling argument in favour of the corporate vote, surely this matter could more appropriately be dealt with through the combined power of businesses uniting in common cause through the Chamber of Commerce, the UBCM or other entities.


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