Jan 31, 2010

Corporations are people too


Advocates of democratic electoral reform are really out of step. Ideas like proportional representation and advertising spending limits are so retro, so 2004.

The fashionable electoral reform idea this year is to give corporations a real say. It’s time for individual citizens to share their electoral democracy with corporations to give meaning to those old legal rulings that said corporations are people too.

Of course, many were shocked at the Jan. 21st decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which said corporate entities have full First Amendment free speech rights, thereby trashing decades of U.S. legislation to limit election advertising spending by corporation and unions. There are now no limits on the amounts corporations can spend on political advertising in the U.S.

But did you know Gordon Campbell and the B.C. government are looking at the option of one-upping the Supremes  by giving corporations the right to vote?

It’s true.

Last October, the Premier announced the creation of a joint task force with the Union of B.C. Municipalities to review the rules for local government elections. The terms of reference for the task force direct them to examine giving corporations the right to vote in B.C. municipal elections. The committee is to report out in May and changes to legislation are expected not long after.

It seems corporations in B.C. feel they have inadequate influence on government decision-making, particularly about taxes. All that tax cutting and tax shifting of the last twenty years is apparently not enough.

Industrial ratepayers  in forest communities and commercial ratepayers in Vancouver have recently been pushing hard for homeowners to pay a greater percentage of municipal taxes. Starting in July, forest companies operating in six B.C. communities simply refused to pay their full tax bills and arbitrarily sent in cheques for only a quarter of what they had been legally assessed. The B.C. Supreme Court has ordered Catalyst Paper to pay in full, but the company is appealing and communities with Catalyst mills are feeling the crunch. Port Alberni is now planning to increase taxes for homeowners by 23.6%, while also reducing and contracting out services.

Corporations once had the right to vote in B.C. local elections, but that was eliminated by the Barrett government in 1973, restored by the Bennett government in 1976 and eliminated altogether again by the Harcourt government in 1993.

Today, there is no corporate voting in any other province and indeed – according to the task force discussion paper – the only place in the world which has it now is “The City”, that small portion of greater London which is home to much of the British financial sector.

The discussion paper also raises the amazing prospect that if B.C. does give corporations the right to vote, non-discrimination clauses in trade agreements like NAFTA and TILMA may make it impossible to restrict that right to B.C. corporations only. There’s every chance the trade agreements will force us to open up voting to foreign corporations doing business in B.C., as well.

Old fashioned ideas like “one human being, one vote” may soon be behind us. If this goes ahead, we can look forward to corporations finally having effective input and full equality with human beings.

It’s time for a refresher on all this. I think I’ll take another look at Joel Bakan’s outstanding video “The Corporation“.

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