This article was originally printed in the Toronto Star on March 2, 2010
By Gillian Steward
The Alberta government introduced some long overdue electoral reforms last week. But in doing so it drew attention to the yawning gap that still exists between Alberta and most other provinces when it comes to creating a more level playing field for all parties during election campaigns.
It's well known that elections in Alberta are usually predictable affairs. The Conservatives win big leaving the opposition parties to lick their wounds and limp along as best they can. What is not so well known is that the rules here are quite different from other provinces.Take campaign financing: Alberta is the only province that does not limit spending by either a party or a candidate. In Ontario, for example, there is a formula that limits campaign spending by a political party in each constituency to 70 cents per registered voter. We have no such limits in Alberta so the governing PCs are free to raise and spend as much money as they deem necessary.
During the last two provincial election campaigns, the PCs spent twice a much as all the other parties combined. They had more than enough money for TV ads, demon dialers, brochures and billboards while the opposition parties could barely scrape enough together to open campaign offices.
Alberta also allows much higher campaign and political donations than most provinces. The upper limit to a party is $30,000 in an election year, compared with $15,000 in Ontario, for example. And whereas other provinces and the federal government have banned donations from corporations and unions, there is no such ban in Alberta.And there are absolutely no rules for leadership candidates of political parties. Premier Ed Stelmach has yet to disclose all the financial backers for his run for the PC leadership. Danielle Smith, the newly anointed leader of the Wildrose Alliance, has also refused to name her financial supporters, even though it is well known that the petroleum industry has been pouring money into the fledgling party.None of these issues was addressed in the latest round of electoral reforms. But the government did eliminate an embarrassing little regulation that allowed the cabinet to appoint constituency returning officers, the supposedly neutral supervisors of election activities in each constituency.
This became a sore point during the 2008 election when it was revealed that several returning officers had PC connections. Many of the enumerators, those responsible for assembling voting lists, also looked like political appointments."Hopefully, this change in the rules means the task of ensuring that voting lists in rapidly growing cities like Edmonton and Calgary are as complete as possible will be taken more seriously," said Bill Moore-Kilgannon, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, which has been lobbying for electoral reform for several years.
The Stelmach government also could have taken this opportunity to introduce a fixed election date but didn't. Six provinces, including Ontario, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, now have fixed election dates but Alberta is still stalling.This is more than a little ironic given that fixed election dates were an early platform plank of the Reform party, which originated in Alberta. The Harper government even managed to get it on the books for federal elections. Until, of course, the Prime Minister decided he couldn't wait until the fixed date and called an election one year early.So while Alberta politicians talked tough on fixed election dates, B.C and Ontario led the way.
Once they have a hold on power, fixed election dates don't look so appealing to Alberta Conservatives.