Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s call for full-disclosure of financial donors by candidates for his Conservative party’s leadership as he exited a Chamber of Commerce luncheon yesterday sounds more like a rocket fired in the general direction of former finance minister Ted Morton than a serious policy suggestion.

Morton, of course, having put the political squeeze on the premier, is now openly campaigning for his job and no doubt collecting big bucks from a long list of secret corporate donors, none of whom have to be named under Alberta’s primitive political leadership campaign financing disclosure regime.

Presumably all the other candidates to replace the premier, who announced on January 25 he was stepping down, are doing the same thing.

C’mon, as even the mainstream media couldn’t resist pointing out, the premier never revealed the names of 80 nice folks who contributed $160,000 to his million-dollar-plus leadership campaign.

What’s more, Stelmach had his chance to do something about this when he was the premier of Alberta in more than name and paycheque, before he relegated himself to the status of the lamest of lame ducks — well, second-lamest if you count Opposition Liberal Leader David Swann.

Instead, his government concentrated on devising complicated financing and disclosure rules for municipal politicians that have had the effect of keeping many good candidates out of local races because they can’t understand or necessarily afford the accounting complications introduced by Stelmach’s Tories, or for that matter even accept a $20 donation from dear old dad if he happens to live in Saskatchewan or B.C.!

But regulate the governing party’s multi-million-dollar leadership contest — for years the only campaign in Alberta politics that really mattered? Oooooh nooo!

Until now, that is, with the premier firing this limp parting shot at his market fundamentalist nemesis just before he slips out the back door.

His motives notwithstanding, Stelmach is quite right in his Road to Damascus conversion to the notion there’s a desperate need at least to require party leadership candidates to report who their donors are and to behave ethically with how they dispose of their leftover cash.

After all, the current situation is a disgrace rightly described a recipe for corruption.

In Alberta at the moment, anyone can give you anything when you’re campaigning for the leadership of the only party that, in normal circumstances, has any chance of forming the government of this benighted place. The candidate, in turn, has no responsibility whatsoever to report anything to anyone for any reason, ever.

There are also no spending limits, no caps on donations or, as far as anyone can tell, no limits on where donations may come from. China? Saudi Arabia? Wyoming? Who cares?

In other words, there are no rules. This sounds like the perfect “free-market solution,” just the sort of thing that would be heartily approved of by Morton, the publicly funded academic right-wing ideologue turned privately funded marketization messiah who at the moment is front-runner in the race to replace Stelmach.

Last time he ran for the leadership, in 2006, Morton could collect as much as he wanted from whomever he liked and promise us all with a straight face it would have no impact on the way he runs the province. He refused to reveal any details of his fund raising. He told the media he didn’t feel that would be fair to the people who would give him money only if he’d promise them anonymity! He’ll do the same thing again this time, it’s reasonable to assume.

Some other candidates revealed partial lists. Mark Norris was the only one to release a complete list before voting day. Lyle Oberg said he would but never got around to it. Jim Dinning provided a complete list months after the vote, but he didn’t report who gave how much to his $1.7-million war chest.

If a candidate had funds left over, he (or she) could use ’em for his next campaign, buy a nice new pair of cowboy boots, take a holiday in the sun, or whatever he darn well pleased. And if you’re just a taxpayer, well, it’s none of your gol-darned business what the candidate did with all the cash his nice corporate friends gave to him, now is it?

If that means whoever wins and becomes premier pays a little more attention to donors’ thoughts on how to run the place than, say, yours … well, what did you expect?

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith is said to have raised a quarter million dollars for her leadership campaign. She has also refused to reveal her donors, telling media last year she was afraid they’d be punished by the Conservative government if that information leaked out. That’s as good an excuse as any, one supposes, and in this province it might even be true!

Last October, Justice Minister Alison Redford (now herself frequently named as a possible candidate for the Conservative leadership) asked the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Public Safety to look into the issue and “consider proposing regulations for financial disclosure rules for leadership contestants.”

She was responding to a suggestion by Lorne Gibson, Alberta’s chief electoral officer until March 2009, when the government skidded him.

The committee’s suggestion? “That the committee recommend to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General to bring back to this committee a detailed discussion paper to address the practicality of leadership disclosure legislation.”

Alas, the dusty trail ends there.

So now the departing premier has revealed to the press that it’s his “personal goal” to ensure there is “full, open transparent disclosure on leadership: who, where the money comes to any leadership candidate, their expenses, in kind.”

That’s a good plan, but here’s a bulletin for the premier: Nothing but legislation can make that happen.

That means he’s got one Legislative session, which starts on February 22 and won’t run past June at the latest, to make this happen. Until yesterday, there’s been no discussion of legislation to regulate this important area.

Well, the wonders never cease, as the past couple of weeks have shown. But how meaningful do you think the premier’s personal goal is?

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...