Blog | January 03, 2012

Op-Ed printed in Edmonton Journal
January 3, 2012Because Alison Redford’s recent victory in the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership contest automatically made her premier, the question of whether this party process was fair and democratic is an important one.A brief look at the PC party’s rules for leadership campaign contributions and at information on the sources and amounts of the contributions unfortunately leads to a discouraging conclusion: the contest was clearly tainted by weak rules which allow undue influence by corporate interests and wealthy individuals.New rules established for the 2011 contest were marginally better than those governing the 2006 process, but there were almost no rules at all for the contest won by Ed Stelmach. At that time a candidate could raise any sum from any source, could spend any amount and did not have to reveal contributors’ identities — a process lacking the slightest element of transparency and accountability. Under the new rules, donors are limited to a contribution of $30,000 and candidates must reveal the names of individuals or corporations that donate more than $375.But major problems remain: there is no limit on spending, corporations and unions are not barred from contributing and donation limits are set far too high. The legislation governing federal party contests, by contrast, sets contribution limits of $1100 per individual, puts a ban on corporate and union contributions and has clear spending limits.The new disclosure rules for 2011 have drawn back the curtain to a limited extent. Final figures are not yet available from PC Alberta, but an interim statement is available on the OpenData/Socrata site for the three finalists Redford, Gary Mar and Doug Horner, and a troubling picture emerges from an examination of the figures.Corporate contributions made up the major component of all three candidates’ funding. While it is difficult to be exact because of ambiguities surrounding the ranges used (for example, “$10,000-$30,000″), contributions from corporations account for 60 to 70 per cent of the total amounts in each of the three campaigns. In Redford’s case, 113 corporate donors (and one union) were reported; 26of these gave between $10,000 and $30,000. Gary Mar reported 151 corporate contributions, with 13 in the $10,000-30,000 ranges. Horner reported a total of 173 corporate contributions, with seven in the $10,000–30,000 categories.The identities of the corporate donors raise important questions about money, influence and governance. For example, both Redford and Mar received large contributions from private health-care corporations offering services to seniors. Redford is on record as favouring deregulation of prices for assisted living for seniors, which would clearly lead to opportunities for privatization.All three candidates received substantial contributions from the energy sector, with Redford leading the way with nine contributions (from corporations and individuals) in the $10,000–30,000 range. The top donor categories (in addition to the energy firms) included Financial Services, Builder/Developers, Health Services, Real Estate, Hazardous Waste Disposal companies and Breweries. Redford even received an out-of-province corporate donation — from Saskatchewan Minerals — which would have been illegal in a provincial general election.This combination of corporate power, money, politics and influence is a clear threat to democracy, and is the key reason why many jurisdictions have simply banned these contributions, but corporate donations are not the only concern. The fact than an individual can give $30,000 to a candidate is also highly problematic, especially since many of the large contributions made by individual donors are made by people who are associated with corporations.The potential influence of all of this casts a shadow over the whole system. If the power of citizens’ votes, rather than the power of money, is supposed to determine outcomes in a democracy, then surely the time has come to ban all corporate donations and to set more reasonable limits on individual contributions as well.Former prime minister Joe Clark summed it up well: “It is not healthy to democracy for the party system to be so subject to the powerful and the rich. The appearance of improper influence is a significant source of cynicism about public life…”To protect the public interest and move toward a more open, transparent and democratic process, we must start with provincial legislation to enact the rules that are already operating at the federal level in Canada. We need to ban corporate and union contributions, place reasonable limits on campaign spending and individual contributions, provide moderate public funding for political parties, require full disclosure of contributions, and ensure that the same rules for elections apply to party leadership campaigns and constituency nominations. It’s not complicated, it’s not expensive, it already works well nationally, and it is absolutely necessary if we are serious about democracy in our province.By Larry Booi, President of Public Interest Alberta

This op-ed was published in the Edmonton Journal on January 3, 2012. Read the full piece on the Edmonton Journal website.