Calgary's next civic election is October 18, 2021. Photo: iStock/CreativeWindmill

Calgary PACs gear up for 2021 election

UCP green-lights big donations for third-party groups.

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Alberta’s former NDP government triggered unintended consequences when it prohibited corporate and union donations to election candidates provincially in 2015, and municipally in 2018.

While the government of the day said it was levelling the playing field by removing big money from politics, the proliferation of third-party advertisers (TPAs)—or political action committees (PACs) as they’re known in the U.S.—has had the opposite effect.

These actors—who must register in municipal races if they spend more than $1,000—can now raise as much money as they want outside an election period to bombard the airwaves and social media with their messaging in support of various issues and candidates.

In the past year, the UCP passed two pieces of legislation that change the Local Authorities Elections Act in ways that critics say will tilt the scales even more in favour of those with the deepest pockets for municipal races.

Bill 29 increases the cap on individual donations to $5,000 toward as many candidates as the donor likes. Previously, an individual could donate $4,000 total.

Additionally, the bill allows PACs to raise as much money as they want outside of the six-month pre-election period and prohibits municipalities from requiring candidates to disclose their donors prior to the election.

Bill 45, introduced in November, imposed a $30,000 cap on individual donations to PACs, without any limits to how many PACs one can contribute to, and allowed for referenda to occur on election day.

[The cap is] much larger than we’ve seen historically and the implications are difficult to calculate.

Lori Williams,

Political scientist, MRU

Mayor Naheed Nenshi has called the cap on PAC donations “arbitrary,” which Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams says is an understatement.

“It’s not just arbitrary, it’s exorbitant,” said Williams. “It’s much larger than we’ve seen historically and the implications are difficult to calculate.”

She predicts the proliferation of PACs will lead to more ideological “slates” of candidates who are less in tune with the practicalities of local issues.

“There’s no question that there are ideological splits on a lot of councils,” she said. “There are people who lean to the left and lean to the right, but because those issues are more on a pragmatic level, they tend to be met that way.”

The new regulations regarding TPAs change this formula to allow relatively small groups of ideological actors to shape the discussion without voters knowing whom they’re beholden to, says WIlliams.

Let’s look at a few prominent TPAs and how they plan to shape the discourse around next year’s civic elections.

Calgary’s Future

The only TPA that has registered with Elections Calgary thus far is Calgarians for a Progressive Future—more commonly known as Calgary’s Future—which signed up on December 31, 2019.

According to its disclosures, Calgary’s Future raised $1,388,964 in 2019 from CUPE Locals 38 and 37, which represent municipal workers, as well as a small donation from the Calgary and District Labour Council (CDLC).

If you want to enter into political advertising… you have to disclose who your donors are in a publicly-accessible way.

Alex Shevalier,

Organizer, Calgary's Future

CDLC president Alex Shevalier is one of the PAC’s organizers. He says Calgary’s Future is focused on maintaining the city’s public services while elevating the tone of debate at city hall.

“We want a council that is going to recognize the value of the services that are delivered on behalf of city hall to citizens,” Shevalier said, citing the city’s quality of parks and roads as examples. “They’re worth defending and preserving.”

He says that while it’s always an uphill battle for union-backed TPAs to compete with those that are corporate-funded, Bill 45 tilts that scale further in the favour of right-wing advertisers.

“It’s not a model of transparency,” said Shevalier. “If you want to enter into political advertising, you should be free to do so, but you have to disclose who your donors are in a publicly-accessible way.”

Save Calgary

One particularly prominent PAC in the 2017 election was Save Calgary, which explicitly campaigned against Mayor Nenshi, as well as councillors Druh Farrell, Evan Woolley, Diane Colley-Urquhart and Gian-Carlo Carra, on four billboards throughout the city and on social media.

All five were re-elected, but Save Calgary is trying again to unseat them in 2021, although none have declared their intentions for the election yet.

We don’t know exactly who the funders behind Save Calgary are, but its ideological slant is no secret.

Since the previous NDP government didn’t pass legislation regarding municipal PACs until 2018—a year after the last municipal elections—we don’t know exactly who the funders behind Save Calgary are, but its ideological slant is no secret.

The “Who We Are” section of Save Calgary’s website links to a September 2017 column from Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell, whose work is constantly shared by the PAC, ridiculing Farrell for questioning a perceived lack of transparency surrounding the PAC.

In that column, Bell identifies Hadyn Place as the “go-to guy with Save Calgary”.

Place presently works as the press secretary for UCP Minister of Infrastructure Prasad Panda and says he is no longer involved with Save Calgary. According to his LinkedIn profile, which doesn’t list his time at Save Calgary, he worked with the pro-UCP PAC Alberta Can’t Wait from 2016 to 2018.

William McBeath has also been quoted as a Save Calgary spokesperson. McBeath didn’t respond to requests for comment.

McBeath's LinkedIn profile lists him as the managing director for the True North Centre for Public Policy, a Rebel Media-adjacent news outlet, and the principal of Canadians for Democracy and Prosperity, an advocacy group that aims to “support conservative principles and ideals,” as well as the Manning Centre (now known as the Canada Strong & Free Network)—where mayoral candidate Jeromy Farkas is a former fellow.

Save Calgary has a soft spot for Farkas, presenting him as the victim of a “witch hunt” for “battling the city hall establishment.”

To Farkas’s credit, he did criticize the UCP’s prohibition on pre-election disclosure, arguing that it should be left up to the municipalities.

Take Back City Hall

Take Back City Hall is another right-wing PAC, which is distinct from Save Calgary in that it’s running a slate of candidates in the upcoming election.

This PAC is an initiative of the Progressive Group for Independent Business (PGIB), a lobbying group that was most recently registered with the Government of Alberta on October 26.

Executive director Craig Chandler, a self-described “front-line worker in the conservative movement” who is running for council in Ward 12, says the TPA’s work promoting policies and candidates is no different from what unions or any other interest group does. Ward 13 candidate Dan McLean is also running under the Take Back City Hall banner.

There’s no nefarious operations going on. We’re probably the most transparent group there is.

Craig Chandler,

Executive director, Take Back City Hall

Chandler says its donors consist mainly of the PGIB’s dues-paying membership, which is about 5,000-strong in Calgary.

“Quite frankly, we think people who run their own corporations are the right individuals to sit as board members at the corporation called the City of Calgary,” said Chandler.

Take Back City Hall is a for-profit enterprise, which Chandler says has “raised a substantial amount,” although he said he couldn’t provide a specific dollar amount because tax season is approaching.

“It’s definitely enough to get the message out there,” he said, adding that the TPA will register officially once the election period begins next year.

Legislation surrounding election finance makes it so PACs are the only means by which candidates can raise money and promote policies outside the official election period, says Chandler.

“Once 2021 comes around, the Take Back City Hall movement will still exist,” he said. “But those candidates who’ve been working with us are going to be focusing on their own [campaigns], because we’re not a political party.”

When you think about being able to promote a single topic through multiple venues with a PAC, it really skews the whole political environment.

Shane Keating,

Ward 12 Councillor

Chandler says he sees no conflict between his roles as a candidate and as the leader of a TPA.

“I don’t think there’s an inconsistency with myself as an individual and belonging to an organization,” he said. “Lots of people belong to the Rotary Club, lots of people belong to various organizations. There’s no nefarious operations going on. We’re probably the most transparent group there is.”

Skewing the electoral process

But Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating disagrees. Keating, who isn’t running for re-election after a decade on council, says PACs should be banned and replaced with a return to old school campaign donations, which he argues are far more transparent.

“When you think about being able to promote a single topic through multiple venues with a PAC, it really skews the whole political environment,” he said.

If a TPA is constantly promoting negative views of a particular set of candidates, it’s difficult for each of them to compete with a TPA’s far bigger war-chest, Keating added.

A democracy is supposed to be about one person, one vote. This blows that completely out of the equation.

Lori Williams,

Political scientist, MRU

However, Keating thinks the controversy over delayed disclosure, whether for TPAs or candidates, is overblown.

“I never hid where I got my donations from, but I never declared mine until after the election,” he said.

“I think it’s up to the credibility of the candidate and whether or not they’re doing the right job. If people’s view of who you are and what you’re doing is solely based on your donations from unions or corporations, I think it’s a very short-sighted view.”

Disclosure issues aside, the ability of large donors to shape political discourse ultimately has a corrosive impact on democracy, says Lori Williams of Mount Royal University.

“A democracy is supposed to be about one person, one vote. This blows that completely out of the equation,” said Williams. “It’s just gone.”

As Ward 3 Coun. Jyoti Gondek put it in an interview with LiveWire Calgary, “This will not be an election of the people. It will be an election of the PACs.”

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.

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