Blog | June 27, 2013

By Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Jun. 26, 2013, Vue WeeklyRunning a serious campaign for city council in a major city like Edmonton costs money—lots of money. So, with less than four months until the October civic election, candidates are focused on the difficult and murky task of raising funds.In the last municipal election, according to the online disclosure statements filed by all candidates, the average elected city councillor raised over $65 000. Mayor Stephen Mandel raised $628 000 and his closest competitor, David Dorward, raised over $573 000.Who gives them this money? To what extent are corporations and unions involved? What do contributors expect in return? What are the limits on contributions? Are citizens made aware of who gave money to which candidates? To what extent does money have the potential to distort election results?For people who value democracy, these are all good questions. Unfortunately, because of the weak campaign-finance legislation in our city and province, the answers require a lot of digging—much more than should be the case. However, a close look at what information is available in regard to the 2010 election provides partial answers, as well as a clear picture of why we need tougher laws.In that election, the majority of the successful candidates’ fundraising came from direct donations of more than $100, which is the threshold at which the candidate must reveal the identity of the donor. Contributions of less than $100 only made up $2300 on average for each elected councillor, compared with $50 700 from those who contributed more than $100.What we also see from the disclosure statements of contributions over $100 is that about two-thirds of these contributions came from corporations—the majority from the development sector. (The Edmonton Journal estimates 56 percent of all contributions come from businesses tied to development.) In other words, most of the money raised by candidates came from corporations, and most of that money came from "development" sources.For the mayor’s race, this number is even higher, as Mandel received over $500 000, making up 80 percent of his total contributions over $100, from businesses.The involvement of the business community in financing the election is actually even greater, because many of the “individual” (as opposed to “corporate”) contributors are well-known Edmonton developers and business people.Given this enormous involvement of corporate and wealthy interests in financing candidates, it raises the issue of the potential influence on how politicians vote on issues. We are not talking about whether councillors are being bribed or unduly pressured by funders to support specific development projects, but, realistically, if they know that over half of their funding for the next election is coming from the business/development community, can they afford to run the risk of being seen as "anti-development?"And the problems are not limited to Edmonton. In Calgary, the issue of corporate influence over the municipal election hit the news when it was revealed that the Manning Centre was receiving over $1 million from developers to support right-wing pro-developer candidates. Given that the Local Authorities Election Act says the maximum campaign contribution is $5000, it appeared to many that these developers were attempting to use the Manning Centre as a US-style “Super-Pac” in order to get around the election rules.So what can we do as citizens? As a start, we must more forcefully demand that our politicians be willing not only to reveal who their contributors are before the election, but that they commit to exploring stronger campaign-finance rules once they are elected. For example, in Manitoba corporations and unions are not allowed to give donations to candidates for provincial or municipal office. Such donations are already not allowed at the federal level. Other jurisdictions have lower contribution limits, like Ontario where the maximum contribution is $750 to any candidate ($2500 if you are running for mayor of Toronto) and the most that any one person or business can contribute to all candidates is $5000.While citizens should ask all council candidates where they stand on these issues, it will be particularly important to know if the mayoralty candidates are willing to address this issue in any substantial way.When I spoke with Karen Leibovici, she confirmed that she has no concerns with the new laws established by the province and questioned why the city should make its own rules. City hall watchers know that she is getting support from many of the large corporations who backed Mandel, and her campaign team includes many long-time conservative strategists with strong ties to conservative party funders. When asked why the $33 575 she listed from fundraising events during the last election did not reveal any contributors over $100, she said that she “did not know what the price was to get into the events, and so could not comment on why the donors were not listed."On the other hand, Kerry Diotte has closer ties to the Wildrose Party. He even received a small contribution from that party in the last election, which is questionable given that provincial parties can issue tax receipts where municipal campaigns cannot. Interestingly, following the controversy around the Katz network of family and friends donating $430 000 to the Conservative Party of Alberta in the last provincial election, the Wildrose Party has announced they would ban corporate and union funding. Unfortunately, it appears that Diotte is not willing to take the same stand.Don Iveson has confirmed that he will reveal who his contributors are prior to the election. He further confirmed that he is willing to explore changing the campaign-finance rules to eliminate contributions from corporations and unions, as long as people are allowed to get a tax receipt for their contributions. He also questions why businesses are able to get tax write-offs for the cost of attending fundraising dinners, while the average citizen does not get any tax receipt for their donations to municipal candidates.Fortunately, the steps toward more democratic elections are relatively obvious, and are already in place at the federal level as well as in a number of provinces and municipalities in Canada. Basically, we need tougher rules to limit the potential for undue influence by wealthy and corporate interests in our elections.Edmonton voters can move democratic reform forward by ensuring that campaign finance issues become important in the October election. By asking candidates where they stand on each of these important questions and insisting on a commitment to campaign finance reform after the election, hopefully we can ensure that the 2013 election is the last one conducted under archaic rules that blatantly favour wealthy corporate interests over ordinary citizens.Bill Moore-Kilgannon is the executive director of Public Interest Alberta.Read the article online at Vue Weekly.Download the Edmonton 2010 Candidate Campaign Finance Comparison