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Banning corporate and union election cash: Not just the right thing for NDP, the smart thing too

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Parkland Chart

There's a buzz in the air here in the New Social Democratic West that our just-elected NDP government's Bill 1 will impose a ban on corporate and union donations to provincial political parties and campaigns.

We'll have a pretty good idea if this is true tomorrow, when Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell reads the Throne Speech.

This is the sort of thing that the remnants of the once mighty Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Opposition keen to inherit the PCs' mantle may feel politically obligated to pretend to support, but which must make their blood run cold. After all, both conservative parties benefit enormously from corporate cash.

I mean, seriously people, if politics in Alberta been a a battle of ideas and not cash, parties espousing a neoliberal philosophy like the Tories and the Wildrose would have found themselves in deep trouble a long time ago.

The situation is much worse for the Tories, who back in 2012 raised 70 per cent of their reportable campaign donations from corporations and unions, and only a only a tiny portion of that from unions. That statistic comes from a fact sheet released Friday by the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta, which noted that 2012 was the last year for which figures were available when it crunched the numbers. Under Elections Alberta's rules, donations larger than $375 must be publicly reported with the name of the donor.

By comparison, the Wildrose Party raised just under 40 per cent of its reportable donations from corporations, none from unions. The NDP raised roughly the same percentage from corporate and union sources, with about 15 per cent of that total coming from corporations.

It's hard to imagine that corporate donations will continue to flow to the Tories at the same rate they used to now that the party has been reduced to third-party status in the Legislature. To make matters worse for the Tories, unlike the New Democrats and the Wildrosers, the post-Jim-Prentice PCs have virtually no capacity to fund-raise from individual donors.

Both the NDP and the Wildorsers raised just over half of their total 2012 donations from individuals who gave less that $375. The Tories raised less than 4 per cent of their total from such contributors!

Since there are significant differences between traditional PC supporters and those of the Wildrose Party, there are reasons the PCs could hope to survive as a party. They were for many years, and may remain to a degree, a big-tent party that unlike the Wildrose had to moderate the extreme market fundamentalism of the modern Republican-influenced North American right.

To survive, the PCs will need to develop a capacity for soliciting and collecting small donations if the New Democrat majority in the Legislature indeed passes a ban on corporate and union donations. That will cost money they don't have right now, with the party at least $1 million in debt.

While the putative NDP plan is clearly the right thing to do from an ethical perspective, there is not much question it also is likely to benefit the governing party’s political position.

As the figures cited by the Parkland Institute partly indicate, rivers of corporate cash provided a significant unfair advantage to the PCs come election time, and they help the Wildrose Party disproportionately too.

Obviously, there's more to this story than just percentages. Not only did the PCs raise a much higher percentage of money from corporate sources -- so high they grew lazy about soliciting donations from and building relationships with individual voters -- but thanks to their corporate donors' deep pockets, they were able to bring in far more of the stuff. The Wildrose Party could too.

The Elections Alberta figures for 2012 are very telling. When you add up the totals raised in the campaign period and non-campaign donations for the entire year, separate reporting columns under Elections Alberta's rules, they were as follows:

PCs -- $7.6 million

Wildrose -- $5.9 million

NDP -- $1.9 million

Alberta Liberals -- $600,000

This is a better guide to just how overwhelming the corporate advantage was in raw fund-raising power in an election year before the remarkable -- perhaps, given all that cash, miraculous -- victory of Premier Rachel Notley's NDP on May 5 2015.

Numbers like these should put an end to the developing meme in right wing circles that -- yikes! -- New Democrats won the May 5 provincial election because of union donations.

Not likely. The New Democrats won because Albertans had had it up to here with Tory entitlement and arrogance, and they didn't trust the far-right nostrums of the Wildrose Party. Nor was the electorate's decision an accident -- we'd all seen the polls, even if we had some doubts they had it completely right, so voters knew there was a significant chance they were truly voting for an NDP government, not just lodging a protest.

As the Parkland fact sheet illustrates, Alberta's huge Wild West spending limits also aided conservative political parties that toe the corporate line.

Under the present law, Alberta citizens and corporations can contribute $15,000 to a political party in any calendar year, $30,000 during an election year less any amount contributed to the same party in the same year. The can also donate an additional $10,000 to political candidates, as well as $5,000 to constituency associations during non-election years.

This, in addition to conveniently lax interpretation of the rules by Elections Alberta, made possible the notorious $430,000 "bulk donation" to the Tories by drugstore and hockey billionaire Daryl Katz and his friends, employees and relations, which helped bail out Alison Redford in 2012.

Obviously, the kind of individual donors who support parties like the NDP don't have that kind of cash to fork over.

"The concept of 'pay to play,' where corporations and the wealthy make sizeable political donations with the expectation of securing regulatory or policy outcomes that will benefit their interests, is well-established in the literature on party and campaign finance," the author of Friday's Parkland report observed.

"Although it can be difficult to draw a direct line from any one donation or contributor to any one policy or regulatory outcome, Albertans could be forgiven for assuming that the tens of thousands of dollars donated annually by wealthy oil and gas corporations and executives over the years had some impact on the PC government's historic reluctance to regulate the industry or increase royalties,” the report stated.

Even with a ban on corporate and union donations in place -- and even with the additional spending limits and third-party spending rules proposed by the Parkland paper -- right wing parties will continue to enjoy a significant advantage. They will be helped by mass media corporations, heavily publicized bogus studies from right-wing "think tanks," and the whole massive agitation and propaganda infrastructure developed by the ideological right and bankrolled  by the corporate sector over the past 40 years.

Nevertheless, as Parkland Research Manager Barret Weber observed, "there's no question that passing legislation which limits political party support to individual Albertans would make a huge difference in addressing the corrosive influence of big money in Alberta politics."

So let's get on with it!

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

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