BC Liberal Party leadership candidate Dianne Watts argues with rival Andrew Wilkinson in televised debate, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (Global BC)

Dianne Watts, most B.C. Liberals would keep taxpayers’ money

Only Todd Stone won’t accept share of $27 million subsidy payment

B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Dianne Watts says she’s as opposed as her rivals to taking millions from taxpayers to run the party, but she won’t send it back.

Watts was a Conservative MP elected after public money for politicians was eliminated by former prime minister Stephen Harper. She agrees with the other B.C. Liberal contenders that public money shouldn’t be given to political parties, but she won’t back Kamloops Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone’s suggestion that the B.C. Liberals should refuse to accept nearly $2 million this year.

Watts noted the whole taxpayer tab for five years of per-vote subsidies amounts to $27 million, which should be spent on services such as education and social housing. But refusing the money on principle is too big a sacrifice.

“You cannot handicap candidates going into a general election and have their hands tied behind their backs,” Watts told Black Press in an interview Thursday.

Stone broke from the other leadership candidates days before announcing his campaign, vowing not to accept the public subsidy payments. Other candidates avoided the question, and their efforts to amend the legislation last fall were rejected by the narrow majority of NDP and Green MLAs.

Stone posted a video message saying as leader he won’t take the money, and Thursday he stood by that.

“We must never do anything to jeopardize the ability of the B.C. Liberal Party to grow, prosper, and especially our ability to compete against the NDP and win,” Stone said. “But I am firmly committed to the principle that not accepting taxpayer subsidies is foundational to our values as a party and foundational to the respect for taxpayers that has always been central to the B.C. Liberals.”

RELATED: B.C. Liberals battle party subsidy in legislature

In this week’s leadership debate, Vancouver-Quilchena MLA Andrew Wilkinson proposed that the party dedicate the entire subsidy to a campaign to defeat the NDP’s referendum on changing the voting system, to be held next fall.

The three main parties have already shared $2.4 million in taxpayer subsidies in the first of five years of payments that the NDP government unveiled as part of their election reform bill last fall.

Payments went out to the B.C. Liberal, NDP and B.C. Green Party this month, representing half of their annual subsidy under the new election financing legislation. Payments are made by the Chief Electoral Officer twice yearly under the new law passed by the NDP with support of the Greens in the fall session.

The B.C. Liberals received the largest share of the $2.50-per-vote subsidy, $996,000, in early January. The NDP were close behind in popular vote in the 2017 election and got $994,000 for their first instalment. The B.C. Greens collected $415,000, based on nearly 17 per cent of the provincial vote in the 2017 election that netted them three seats on southern Vancouver Island.

The B.C. Liberals denounced the public subsidy and voted against it. Wilkinson led the attack as critic for Attorney General David Eby, who formulated both the election finance reform and voting system referendum laws for the NDP government.

Wilkinson denounced the public subsidy as a “travesty” and a “complete betrayal” of what the NDP promised before the 2017 election, which was to eliminate corporate and union donations and cap the personal donation amount at what Eby later pegged at $1,200 per year.

In his campaign last spring, Premier John Horgan denied there was any plan to use taxpayer subsidies to replace corporate and union donations. Horgan dismissed former premier Christy Clark’s suggestion he was planning a public subsidy as a fabrication.

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