Blog | August 17, 2016

Given the frantic and outraged reaction by representatives of three Alberta opposition parties, a casual observer might suspect that a recent proposal for democratic reform by NDP MLAs on a legislative committee involved something like a massive and direct transfer of assets from Alberta’s Heritage Fund to NDP MLAs for their personal use.

The opposition cries ranged from merely morally outraged to near apocalyptic:

  • Wildrose MLA Scott Cyr called the proposal, “obscene,” “offensive,” and “disingenuous.”
  • Alberta Party MLA Greg Clark called it “unconscionable…especially when it’s such a difficult financial time.”
  • PC MLA Sandra Jensen said, “The tone deafness of this proposal is staggering,” and added, “This government surely has more pressing matters to focus on, given the current state of Alberta’s economy.”
  • Wildrose House Leader Nathan Cooper described it as “a scheme to funnel millions of dollars away from citizens and into the coffers of political parties, especially during these tough economic times.”
  • PC MLA Richard Starke managed to come up with the most hysterical reaction, warning that, "they will see a firestorm across this province, the likes of which they haven’t seen since they were elected.”

According to MLA Starke, then, the reaction to this latest proposal will exceed the organized and dramatic province-wide protests over the NDP government’s farm and ranch bill in 2015. It’s surprising that Starke didn’t quote Bill Murray’s famous Ghostbusters warning about the “disaster of biblical proportions” ahead: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.”

But a more-than-casual look at the actual election finance proposal clearly leads to two conclusions. First, the NDP MLAs’ proposal is a reasonable and effective policy change that will make a solid contribution to much-needed democratic reform in our province. Second, the opposition parties’ reactions are classic examples of hyperbolic rhetoric in the service of obvious political opportunism at the expense of sound policy.

The policy proposal is straightforward, sensible, and relatively inexpensive, and has been working well at the federal level (throughout the Harper years) for more than a decade. It involves giving a rebate on some election expenses to parties and candidates which receive a specified level of public support in elections.

The policy is particularly timely and worthwhile because the NDP government is quite rightly moving ahead with reforms that will reduce the funding that parties and candidates receive from other sources, with the elimination of corporate and union funding and the proposed reduction in maximum individual contributions.

The policy was first instituted at the federal level to help make up for the reduction in private election funding due to democratic reforms, by providing a reasonable subsidy of public funding based on achieving a level of public support at the polls. We now need a similar policy response in Alberta.

MLA Starke stated, “The idea that somehow taxpayers should be subsidizing political parties, I just don’t see that is in any way an initiative we should consider.”

But of course, it is very much in the public interest to have a more level playing field for our elections, to help ensure that voters, and not wealth and influence, determine the outcomes. And it is clearly in the public interest in a parliamentary system to have strong political parties that are not dependent on wealthy and corporate interests for the funds necessary to operate. Reasonable individual donations supplemented by modest public funding help to achieve those important goals, and we need to put in place policies to do so.

The allegation of funnelling money “away from citizens and into the coffers of political parties” is clearly specious. The proposal should be seen for what it really is: a reasonable investment of modest public funds in democratic reform, in the public interest.

In addition, MLA Starke and others seemed to have missed the key point that the principle of some public financial support is already well established, particularly in the tax rebates to individuals for political financial contributions. The proposed policy clearly advocates building on that existing policy in order to reflect the changed circumstances that arise from reduced private funding due to necessary democratic reforms.

A number of opposition MLAs have pushed the view that we can’t possibly afford to go in this direction because of the province’s financial situation. Really? Once again, we are being told by conservative politicians that we simply can’t afford important and relatively inexpensive democratic reforms in the public interest, “on principle” – which really means, “because oil prices are low.” But maybe if oil prices come back up, we can have more democracy? You would think this tired and misguided argument would be beneath them, but obviously it is not.

In the final analysis, the sound and fury from opposition parties signifies almost nothing about the proposed policies, but it does tell us a lot about those doing the shouting.

We should congratulate the NDP members on the legislative committee for having the courage to move ahead on comprehensive democratic reform despite the manufactured and cynical wailing from opposition MLAs, and we should urge the NDP caucus and cabinet to support these important changes.