Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Despite a lot of distraction, illegal political donations still stink up Alberta

| February 17, 2013
Brian Fjeldheim

OK, we're all enjoying a nice quiet Family Day long weekend. This gives us an opportunity to look back at the interlocking illegal political contribution eruptions that until recently plagued the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

The past couple of weeks have been a busy time for Alberta political commentators, with daily events that might have been a scandal in some places, but somehow just didn't make the grade here on the western edge of the Great Plains.

There were refugee-camp conditions in homeless shelters, a four-day school week to save money in Fort McMurray, a leak of budget details, rumours a valuable government-owned financial institution might be privatized, a suggestion Athabasca University is about to be shut down, the government's senseless fight with doctors, the balloon floated about imposing a draconian contract on teachers and the ridiculous one-day "economic summit" of hand-picked delegates mostly anxious to showcase the Redford Government's neoconservative bromides.

But now that we have a pause in this steady stream of news hits, let's go back to the one recent situation that got lost in the shuffle, the one Albertans find genuinely scandalous -- to wit, illegal political donations.

The suggestion election financing in this province has been a snake pit of illegality, probably pretty much forever, has been deeply disillusioning to many Albertans, regardless of where they place themselves on the political spectrum.

This, it is said here, is because Albertans really do perceive themselves as self-reliant, straight-talking Plainsmen, living at the pinnacle of modern Western society.

So it is natural that for Albertans who want to think they were only exercising clear-eyed common sense when they elected an unbroken succession of Tory governments for 41 years, the thought that deep down our political system might be rotten had a corrosive effect and provoked feelings of deep resentment.

How can we look down our noses at Quebec when the same level of casual corruption we’ve always imagined was the norm there turns out to be standard operating procedure here in the land of big skies and Chinook winds?

As things stand right now, the scandal has two public components:

1)    The routine funnelling of public money from colleges, universities, counties, hospitals and municipalities, laundered through staff expense accounts, into the Conservative Party's election coffers. This one apparently extends right into the premier's family.

2)    An enormous donation made by hockey and drugstore billionaire Daryl Katz in the final days of the last provincial election campaign, when Redford's re-election was no sure thing, which on the face of it was made in open defiance of the rules.

Recent developments in both cases had kept the pot boiling and led to the uncomfortable conclusion that Alberta politics are endemically corrupt very hard for many voters to avoid.

Late last month it was revealed Alberta's Chief Electoral Officer -- hitherto a loyal Tory retainer -- was pushing the governing party to voluntarily repay a small sum of about $20,000 in illegal donations received before the last election.

This was in addition to O. Brian Fjeldheim's not-so-voluntary order to the party to repay another $17,000 or so determined to be thoroughly over the top.

There are divisions within PC ranks about whether the party should voluntarily repay anything. But while there may be a legal argument for not making a voluntary repayment, if acted upon it is certain to be pure political poison.

The Tories might be able to plausibly claim they couldn't know where the donations came from since they were made in dribs and drabs by citizens who then privately expensed them to their municipal councils, hospital boards or universities. All these institutions paid their employees back because, well, that's just the way things are done in Alberta, where everybody knows how you get access to the people who make the decisions.

But it would be hard for the PCs to claim they didn't really know what was going on, even as they plugged their ears to specific details.

Then there was the damning fact that of the 45 examples discovered by the Chief Electoral Officer of illegal donations made by municipalities, counties, school boards, and post-secondary institutions in the past three years, every one involved a contribution to a Conservative fund-raiser.

Even more embarrassing was the revelation at a recent session of the so-called queue-jumping inquiry into preferential medical treatment in Alberta's health system that, long before the time under examination by Fjeldheim, the premier's sister Lynn had expensed contributions to Tory fundraisers back to her public employer of the day, the Calgary Health Region.

The whole affair leaves Albertans feeling as if the known donations are just the tip of iceberg. Moreover, there's really no one to punish. If the public bodies that approved the expenses were to be held responsible for them, of course, it is taxpayers who would have to pay, again.

Meanwhile, there was the matter of that notorious $300,000 donation -- or was it $430,000 as the Globe and Mail reported? -- delivered by Katz in the last days of the election campaign, when the Redford Tories appeared to be on the ropes.

Fjeldheim is said to be having that one reviewed as well, in a separate investigation.

Since the donation was written on a single cheque, and since Alberta's election financing legislation limits a single individual's donation to $30,000, on its face this would appear to be outright defiance of the law.

Katz and the party argue it was several donations from various Katz family members, friends and business retainers rolled into a single cheque merely for the sake of convenience.

Whatever the ruling, the odour of something not quite right unavoidably lingers like a whiff of something left too long at the back of the refrigerator.

One irony of the problem with expensed donations by public institutions, it is said here, is that the province's election-financing law was clearly drafted to facilitate just such abuses. The only thing is, the goal was to make improper corporate donations easy to make and difficult to trace. How else but laundering donations through employees could corporations exceed their immodest donation limits?

Things only really went off the rails because standards of accountability and reporting at public institutions such as colleges, universities, hospitals and health authorities are higher. When these institutions got into the act and began behaving in a way that's taken for granted in the private sector, the information could be searched by enterprising reporters or the political operators who feed them tips.

The other irony is that the illegal behaviour behind the uproar would never have been a problem if the complaints had come from the Alberta Liberals or the New Democrats. That's just the way things work in Alberta: the right has a bag of tricks and the media ignores anyone to the left who complains about it.

The media's interest was only piqued, it is said here, because the complaints came from the Wildrose Party, which was attacking the government from the right.

Given all this, it's likely that while the PC Party will grump about it, in the end it will repay the illegal donations to minimize the political fallout, then try to make a virtue of political necessity.

As for the Katz donation, which appears to have been the result of pure arrogance, it presents a slightly different problem for the PCs.

If the investigation now under way concludes Katz broke the rules with his giant cheque, the government will appear to have pushed a generous supporter over the side. This will not have a positive effect on future contributions. If it concludes he did not, a cynical and embittered public will see it as more evidence of Tory cronyism and corruption.

Either way, this is unlikely to end well for Redford's government.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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