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Alberta NDP's latest tweaks to Alberta election financing laws take aim at PACs

Alberta Democratic Renewal and Labour Minister Christina Gray. Image: David J. Climenhaga

The most controversial omission in new Alberta legislation restricting the activities of so-called political action committees (PACs) released yesterday afternoon by the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley will likely be the fact Bill 32 does not propose to ban donations to PACs by corporations and unions.

That was certainly the complaint loudly made by the Alberta Liberals, who had introduced a private member's bill on the same topic that did contain such a ban, and it seemed to be the tack taken by the analysis in mainstream media stories like those filed by the CBC and Postmedia.

Critics will probably assign dark motives to the NDP's decision to allow corporations, unions and people outside the province to continue to make donations to Alberta PACs.

Still, Democratic Renewal Minister Christina Gray's defence of that omission may well hold water. Yesterday, she argued such limits in An Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta would probably have violated protections of freedom of expression and association guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One of the responsibilities of government is to bring forward legislation that stands a chance of surviving the inevitable court challenges it will face, and one of the luxuries of being a small opposition party like the Alberta Liberals is that it's generally safe to ignore such realities.

So Liberal Leader David Khan's claim the private member's bill put forward by the sole Liberal MLA, David Swann, "is a better bill and will do a better job of getting dark money out of politics" might be true in the best of all possible worlds, but that is not the one we inhabit. The world Alberta's laws must confront contains constitutionally guaranteed freedoms that have long been extended to corporations as if they were natural persons, and more recently, unions.

Critics also complained that Bill 32 does not contain a legal definition of PACs. A government spokesperson told me yesterday that not including a legal definition of PACs was done quite intentionally, because of the way the province's Conservatives moved swiftly into U.S.-style PACs when the NDP outlawed corporate and union donations to political parties. "As soon as you define PACs, they're going to pivot and find a way to change and not meet the definition of a PAC," he said.

Better, therefore, to define prohibited activities than the entities that might commit them, he argued.

Regardless of whether you agree or not that the more restrictive version of the bill could withstand a Charter challenge, that's going to be the government's story, and they're going to stick to it. They will almost certainly try to have Bill 32 passed by the end of the week, when the Legislature takes its annual holiday break.

Notwithstanding the critics' complaints, Bill 32 combined with previous legislation passed by the NDP in 2016 may not get what Khan calls the "dark money" out of politics, but it will expose it to enough illumination that it can hardly be called dark any more.

As Gray put it in the government's press release: "Albertans deserve to know who is trying to influence their elections. Over the past year, we've seen a significant rise in the number of third parties who are trying to bring dark money into Alberta politics. … Shining a light on this dark money will help ensure Albertans decide for themselves."

An overview of the bill's changes to the Election Act published by the government yesterday shows the bill will:

  • Place strict spending limits on third parties such as PACs of $150,000 on political advertising before an election is called
  • Limit to $3,000 money may be used to promote or oppose the election of one or more candidates in any single electoral division
  • Consider as advertising money spent on canvassing, hall rentals and the like to promote or oppose a party or candidate
  • Ban collusion among third parties, political parties, leadership candidates, PACs and the like to circumvent spending limits
  • Deny third parties the right to sell party memberships or collect voter information in support of a party, candidate, nomination candidate or leadership candidate
  • Specifically ban corporations, unions and people not resident in Alberta from such activities
  • Place limits on government advertising during by-election and election periods -- changes that may have been inspired by a Wildrose Party MLA's 2015 private member's bill

Unanswered is the question of how the stiffer penalties set out in the bill would be applied after an election to an opposition party that broke the rules and won.

Alberta Party extends candidate-free leadership race by nearly 3 weeks

If you're one of those NDP supporters who happens to think a strong showing in Calgary by the now-sort-of-leaderless Alberta Party is an essential component to any hope the NDP can survive in the 2019 general election as government, you'll probably be relieved by the Alberta Party announcement yesterday it was extending its leadership race by 20 days.

This seems prudent, seeing no candidate has yet come forward to lead the party.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark stepped aside suddenly on November 10. He was apparently given a helpful shove from some refugees from the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party who joined the Alberta Party after the creation of the United Conservative Party.

Any such speculation about the likely outcome of the 2019 election, of course, assumes that in 2019 a healthy and competently led Alberta Party will bleed off more Conservatives disgruntled with the cynical and scary social conservative UCP leadership of Jason Kenney than it will steal progressive votes from the NDP.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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