Blog | June 08, 2015

By Larry Booi, Edmonton JournalOne result of the remarkable May 5 provincial election is that things that for so long seemed unlikely are now not only possible, but suddenly even probable.A good example is the prospect of provincial campaign and party finance reform, which has long been seen as badly needed. We now have not only an NDP government that is committed to this type of reform, but also an Official Opposition that favours it as well, with both parties having made it part of their election platform.Specifically, both the NDP and Wildrose parties have said that they will ban (or in the case of Wildrose, “phase out”) political donations by corporations and unions. This move is long overdue and will be an important step in improving the situation.But this move will address only one aspect of Alberta’s serious problems in the way we finance our elections and party contests, and our system will still be manifestly undemocratic in this area. Without a broader approach, money will continue to play an inordinate role, parties will continue to set their own rules in ways inconsistent with the public interest, and citizens will remain largely in the dark about campaign and party finances and their undemocratic effects.Alberta’s new NDP government has an ideal opportunity to take a much more comprehensive approach, and should broaden their legislation to address four other major concerns:1. Lower contribution limits. Alberta’s current limit of $30,000 per person in an election year is far too high. We should reduce the allowable contribution to the $1,200 limit that was in place at the federal level for most of the past decade, to ensure that wealthy contributors can no longer dominate party finances.2. Institute spending limits. Alberta is the only province that does not have spending limits for election campaigns, and limits are in place at the federal level as well. Reasonable limits for parties and candidates will help to further reduce the undue influence of money and level the playing field.3. Institute much stronger rules on disclosure of contributions and spending. We need pre-election reporting, enhanced donor identification rules, and disclosure formats that are much more citizen-friendly and useful. Such rules are in place in many jurisdictions in North America, and could be easily enacted in Alberta.4. Extend the rules on contributions and spending to cover party leadership and constituency contests. Alberta’s current weak legislation allows a free-for-all setting in which parties largely set their own rules, with the result that party leaders in particular can be selected by clearly undemocratic processes. As we have seen recently, the last two PC leaders selected through this unacceptable process automatically became premier of our province. The rules at the federal level are a good model in this regard, and have worked well for the past decade. We should adopt them in Alberta.Alberta is clearly undemocratic in ways that go beyond campaign and finance issues: The need for electoral reform to deal with serious issues of representation, the problem of our weak legislature and dominant executive, the lack of citizen engagement in governance and decision-making, and the need for more openness and transparency.But campaign and party finance reform is an excellent place to make a good beginning, and it has the added virtue of being almost free, especially in challenging financial times.It is not often that the planets align in ways that make genuine reform possible, and we need to seize these opportunities when they arise. Now is the time for citizens to encourage their new government to put in place this important first step to a more democratic Alberta.Larry Booi of Public Interest Alberta is a former president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.© Copyright (c) The Edmonton JournalRead the article on the Edmonton Journal's website