Justice Minister Kaycee Madu at yesterday's news conference to introduce changes to Alberta's election financing legislation Credit: Alberta Newsroom

Alberta’s United Conservative Party introduced new election financing legislation yesterday that appears likely to allow big money and dark money to start flowing back into provincial politics as well as restricting the free speech rights of groups that disagree with the government.

So it seems on brand for the UCP to headline its press release on the topic with a statement the “new legislation would strengthen democracy by getting big money out of Alberta politics and establishing a set election date.” (Emphasis added.)

But how much worse Bill 81, the Election Statutes Amendment Act, will actually make things remains to be seen. Figuring that out will require some thoughtful analysis that no one is likely to be able to produce immediately after the text of the bill was published.

Bill 81 is one of a number of new laws introduced by the UCP to keep a few promises to its friends, but mainly to look busy and distract attention from the Kenney Government’s appalling mishandling of COVID-19, its poor economic record, and the scandals that seem to crop up almost weekly. 

Grafting an American-style fixed election date onto Canada’s constitutionally entrenched Westminster style Parliamentary system will certainly make fund-raising easier for parties that appeal to the big corporations that have largely captured this province’s government and regulatory regime. 

But how it’s supposed to “make Alberta’s elections fairer and more modern,” as Justice Minister Kaycee Madu claimed when introducing the bill yesterday afternoon, may forever remain a mystery. 

Be that as it may, Alberta elections will now be held on the last Monday in May every four years — unless they’re not, which will be entirely up to the government of the day. So change, but no change. 

As for banning foreign money from Alberta election campaigns, that might have sounded like a great idea to go with an inquiry into citizens exercising their free speech rights about the oilsands back in the UCP’s heyday two years ago, but now it just seems like the proverbial solution in search of a problem. 

Leastways, the big money that has lately influenced Alberta elections didn’t come from foreign sources, at least not without first being laundered through their local corporate subsidiaries and think tanks.

The NDP’s reaction to the bill was harsh. Edmonton-South MLA Thomas Dang charged “this bill allows the UCP to run their next election on illegal money.”

“It’s no wonder why,” Dang told his own afternoon news conference. “This is a party that is sinking in the polls, having trouble getting donations from ordinary Albertans, and that has a history of resorting to shady, underhanded practices in both election campaigns and leadership campaigns.”

Dang’s argument hinged on provisions that will relieve constituency associations from the obligation to report quarterly fundraising totals and remove nomination candidates from contributions limits now in the law. “This means potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars from big donors sneaking into party coffers through nomination contests,” he said. “There could also be multiple, illegal donations to UCP constituency associations as this bill will allow donations to be hidden for months after a general election.”

It may also result in the NDP always appearing to raise more money that the UCP — setting a narrative that doesn’t necessarily help the UCP. Call this a small own-goal by the drafters of the bill. 

Dang also assailed provisions banning groups “affiliated” with political parties from political advertising by not allowing them to register as third-party advertisers with Elections Alberta. 

This is intended to close what Premier Jason Kenney has called “the AFL Loophole,” an act of political revenge for past campaigns against the government by the Alberta Federation of Labour. 

But while the AFL may be mentioned in the NDP’s constitution, the NDP isn’t named in the AFL’s. It’s hard to see how this will survive the inevitable court challenge. 

In the meantime, some of the wording of the legislation seems too bizarre to have been composed by the government of Alberta’s competent lawyers. 

Its definition of “affiliated” is very broad. It includes “the extent to which the third party has been involved in electoral campaigns or made public statements in support of or in opposition to the registered party, a registered candidate of the registered party, any other registered party or a registered candidate of any other registered party.”

Say what? Does this mean you can’t register as a third-party advertiser if you express disagreement with the policies of the governing party? Sounds like it. 

After all, it leaves enforcement up to Elections Alberta, an office of the legislature whose neutrality is nowadays subject to some uncertainty

Other changes in the legislation include: 

  • Employers will now get to choose when their employees get time off to vote.
  • The spending limit for political parties will be raised to about $3.4 million from the current $2 million, hurting the chances of smaller parties on the right that might drain votes from the UCP. 
  • Audited financial statements will no longer be required if revenue and expenses of a registered party are less than $25,000 — up from the current level of $1,000.
  • A $30,000 donation limit to third-party advertisers by a person or group.

Other legislation introduced yesterday included a “red tape reduction” bill that, among other things, will ease some traditional rules on the consumption of alcohol. Warning: you may soon be served homemade hooch at a wedding reception! 

One imagines that Bill 80’s promise to address Human Rights Commission complaints more quickly will not work out well for citizens who actually have legitimate complaints.

Bill 82, the Mineral Resource Development Act, according to the government’s cheerful press release, “will help capitalize on Alberta’s potential to become a preferred international producer and supplier of minerals and mineral products such as lithium, uranium, vanadium, rare earth elements, potash, and diamonds.”

Does this actually mean anything? Too soon to say. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

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 Globe...