This op-ed was originally printed in Edmonton Journal June 30, 2009
One could easily be forgiven for describing Alberta’s government as hypocritical when it comes to democratic reform, given the events of the recently-completed spring session of our province’s Legislative Assembly. While the Stelmach government once again failed to bring forward any changes to promote reform related to campaign and party financing, despite the dismal situation in the province in this regard, it did allow private member’s bills from two Tory backbench MLAs to go forward.Unfortunately, neither bill was focused on the obvious problems of money, power and influence that work to the advantage of the PC party at the provincial level.
Instead, MLAs pointed the finger and attempted to force change elsewhere, particularly at the municipal level, but also in regard to the participation of Alberta unions in elections. Bill 203, introduced by Tory MLA Jeff Johnston, was approved by the legislature and will limit donations to civic candidates and ban the keeping of campaign surpluses. Johnston stated, “It’s an approach across the province that any Albertan can expect from their municipalities. It sets a minimum standard.”
But if electoral financial reform is such a good idea for local government, surely one is entitled to ask why it is not a good idea at the provincial level as well, given that Alberta has the worst electoral financing system in the country.
For example, the last Tory leadership contest, which resulted in Ed Stelmach becoming party leader and therefore Premier, was conducted almost entirely without rules related to financing, which are necessary to ensure democratic processes and protect the public interest. Leadership candidates were basically free to raise any amount, from any source, and spend it for any purpose, without any obligation for disclosure – a remarkable situation, and one that would be seen as utterly unacceptable in most other democratic settings.
The second proposal, Bill 205, which was brought forward by PC MLA Rob Anderson, did not get through the full process but will likely be brought back in the fall sitting of the legislature. According to Anderson, its purpose is “to put clear parameters around third-party advertising during provincial elections.”
To some observers, the bill was clearly “payback” for the extensive involvement by some unions in the 2008 provincial election; while the bill would not only apply to unions, it would substantially limit their ability to intervene through political advertising during elections.
MLA Anderson stated that the principle was to ensure “an even and balanced and fair election playing field, to make sure that the size of one’s wallet would not unduly influence the outcome of the election.” Setting aside the question of the motivation for the bill, it is clear that Mr. Anderson has at least articulated the underlying principle correctly – in fact, his statement should be the basis for a broadly-based reform of campaign and party financing at the provincial level by the Stelmach government, in keeping with this premier’s earlier commitments regarding openness and transparency.And it is very important to recognize the dramatic need for such reforms. Instead of leading the country in a commitment to democratic renewal, Alberta is in fact far behind the other provincial and federal jurisdictions in almost every aspect of campaign and party financing rules, let alone in other crucial areas of democratic reform. For example:
- Alberta is one of the only Canadian jurisdictions that place no limit on campaign spending by party or candidates during an election.
- In terms of contributions limits, Alberta’s limits of $15,000 (or $30,000 in an election year) are double those of the next least restrictive province.
- Alberta only requires disclosure for contributions above $375; other Canadian jurisdictions’ thresholds for public disclosure range from $50 to $250.
- Canada, Manitoba and Quebec ban corporate and union contributions, while Alberta has no policy on who can contribute.
- In terms of public financing, unlike a number of other provinces and the federal government, Alberta has no cash allowances for parties, nor does it provide any reimbursement of election expenses.
- In addition, our province has no financial rules for party nomination and leadership races.
Public Interest Alberta (www.pialberta.org) is releasing a proposal for comprehensive democratic reform of electoral campaign and party financing laws, which if implemented would see Alberta go from laggard to leader in this crucial area. In each case, our proposals are not based on an abstract or ideal situation, but rather on actual policies that are currently in effect at either the provincial or federal level somewhere in Canada.
In other words, other parts of Canada are getting it right, and Alberta does not need to look very far for more democratic practices. For example, it is time for spending limits in election campaigns. Several provinces have adopted some variation on the very reasonable federal limits, which have a per-voter spending maximum for each constituency the party contests, along with a similar measure for candidate spending.
On the issue of public financing of parties (made more necessary by lower contribution limits and as an alternative to corporate and union financing,) the governments of Canada, PEI, New Brunswick and Quebec currently provide cash allowances to political parties according to a per-vote formula; the Canadian government and several provinces also reimburse political parties and candidates for a substantial amount of campaign expenses if they obtain a specified percentage of the vote.
In terms of much-needed rules for party nomination and leadership races, at the federal level, these races are now governed by the same legislation that applies to campaign and party financing.
It is important to remember the words of Canada’s Supreme Court in a 2004 decision (Harper v. Canada) on a key principle related to these issues: “Elections are fair and equitable only if…election discourse is not dominated by those with access to greater financial resources.”
If the government is serious about wanting to improve the democratic process in Alberta, it should adopt the realistic and effective practices that are clearly evident elsewhere in our country. As an important first step to broader democratic reform, it is time for citizens to demand a much more democratic framework of rules for electoral and party financing in Alberta.