by Larry Booi, Chair of Public Interest Alberta's Democracy Task Force
The government’s long-awaited move to strengthen democracy in local elections is both welcome and substantially helpful in a number of important ways.
It essentially mirrors the government’s previous acts of legislation covering the provincial level, and consequently involves both the considerable strengths as well as the drawbacks of that legislation.
The core elements of the new proposals are consistent with the principles of making our political system (and in particular our elections and campaign financing) more democratic in our municipalities, school boards and other local entities.
The move to ban union and corporate contributions at the local level is absolutely essential, and reflects the laudable decision to do so at the provincial level in the NDP government’s first piece of legislation after taking office, Bill 1, An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta, in June of 2015.
Lowering individual contribution limits, limiting the time for electioneering and fundraising, providing for oversight and enforcement of strengthened rules on campaign spending and third-party advertising, requiring more fulsome disclosure of donations – all of these are sensible extensions of current provincial-level rules.
At the same time, a major problem of the provincial rules is now reflected in the proposed local-level legislation: the contribution limits are still far too high. The decision to go with a figure of a $4,000 limit is consistent with the provincial-level rule, and is equally disappointing. If ten wealthy individuals give their maximum donation to one candidate, they can provide $40,000 to fund the basis of a campaign, which is simply inconsistent with the stated intentions of “working to get big money out of local elections” and “elections should be decided by people, not money.”
A far better approach would be to amend the provincial level to $1500, similar to existing federal contribution limits, and then to apply that same figure to the municipal level.
In addition, the proposed legislation states that there will be spending limits for campaigns (which now exist at the provincial level and is clearly essential to democratic reform) but doesn’t specify what those levels will be, pending “future stakeholder consultations.” But supposedly a considerable amount of consultation has gone into the bill already, and the problem is not that complex (the most obvious approach is to use a per-voter amount, as is the case at the federal level), so why the delay?
In fact, “Why the delay?” is a reasonable question to raise about this legislation in general. It clearly reflects provincial-level legislation that has been in place for some time, so why wasn’t this legislation put into place (as many had hoped and expected) before the municipal elections in the fall of 2017?
As a result of this delay, last fall’s local elections were once again run under the old legislation, allowing corporate and union donations, higher contribution limits, and all of the other problems in accountability and transparency that plagued previous elections. Particularly in our two large cities, it meant that money from developers once again played a significant role in electing our city councils, which will be in place until 2021.
The government could at least have passed a bill well before the municipal elections to simply ban corporate and union contributions and reduce contribution limits, but chose not to do so, for reasons that didn’t make sense then and have not been satisfactorily explained since.
Of course, “better late than never” is still true, and the positive steps are certainly welcome and worthy of support.
In doing so, Alberta’s government has addressed another important aspect of democratic reform - and now there is much more to be done:
- As a top priority, we need to address the inadequate state of public engagement in decision-making, policy development, and governance. The current processes for engaging citizens and civil society organizations in these areas is both inadequate and haphazard. Public Interest Alberta’s Democracy Task Force proposed a comprehensive approach to effective democratic engagement, Engaging Citizens for a Stronger Democracy in February 2017, which includes both a set of guiding principles and a set of proposed practices. It also includes a proposal for the government to establish a Public Centre for Democracy in order to further foster a more democratic culture.
- It is also essential to address serious issues with our electoral system, particularly to make progress on replacing our first-past-the-post system with a model of proportional representation.
- There is also a growing need to strengthen the roles of our elected legislature and our elected Members of the Legislative Assembly. As in the case of the federal government and other provinces, Alberta’s concentration of far too much power in the hands of the executive – the premier and cabinet - also mean that the role of MLAs, legislative committees, and the Legislative Assembly as a whole are too often marginalized, unsupported, and inconsistent with the requirements of elected representatives who exercise the legislative function in a strong democracy.
Public Interest Alberta has outlined its priority concerns and proposals for advancing democratic reform as important parts of our major advocacy document, Priorities for Advancing the Public Interest.
Alberta’s government has made substantial progress in three years in advancing democratic reform in our province. We should recognize and appreciate that progress, and at the same time should keep up the pressure to deal effectively with advancing these other important elements of democratic reform.
In a time of scarce resources, democratic renewal has the considerable advantage of not being prohibitively expensive as well.
Recently, political discussions have been dominated by topics related to pipelines, energy, the economy, and jobs. Those issues deserve to be discussed, but as we head toward the next election, citizens and organizations have an excellent opportunity to make strengthening our democracy an important topic of debate and concern as well. Let’s make sure to take advantage of that opportunity in the coming months.