How Alberta welcomed big money into city elections
The UCP’s Bill 29 undermines local democracy, municipalities say.
Alberta’s next municipal elections kick off a year from now. This week, rookie councillor Jeromy Farkas was the first to throw a hat into the ring for the Calgary mayoral race.
But in a summer overflowing with disruption and chaos, Albertans might have missed the UCP’s attempt at municipal campaign finance reform.
So let’s leave the autumn weather behind for a moment and go back to the summer: not sunshine and socially-distanced patios, but the passage of Bill 29.
The legislation lifts restrictions on how much each donor can contribute in municipal elections, making it easier for wealthy Albertans to exert greater influence.
“These are dangerously undemocratic and unethical changes,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch.
First, a quick background on where things stood before this new bill.
For a long time, what few restrictions Alberta had on who could donate how much to political campaigns were pretty loose. But the previous NDP government passed three notable pieces of legislation between 2015 and 2018.
These are dangerously undemocratic and unethical changes.
In 2015, the very first bill they introduced banned corporate and union donations to provincial political parties, and was passed unanimously in the legislature. This had the side effect of sending that money to political action committees, or PACs, giving these third-party groups tremendous influence.
In 2016 came the Fair Elections Financing Act, which further addressed provincial campaigns, reducing the amount a person could donate to a candidate or party in a single year from $15,000 (or $30,000 in an election year) to $4,000.
That legislation also introduced campaign spending limits, which limited spending of third-party advertisers to a maximum of $150,000 during a campaign, and required public disclosure of any donations over $250.
The third bill tackled municipal and school board elections, but it wasn’t passed until 2018, a year after the last municipal campaigns—and so it was never put into practice.
The bill banned corporate and union donations and reduced the donation limit for individuals from $5,000 to $4,000. And it also imposed campaign spending limits and reduced campaign periods from four years to one.
A ‘legalized bribery system’
There’s a lot to take in there, but note the limits for individual donors: $4,000 total, in a given calendar year. If you’re thinking, “Geez, who has that kind of money to give to a campaign?” well, hold that thought.
Bill 29, which was introduced in June and came into effect September 1, makes several notable changes to the rules for the next municipal elections across the province, scheduled for October 18, 2021.
Individuals can now contribute $5,000 per candidate, with no limit on the number of candidates someone can donate to.
Wealthy people with deep pockets will be allowed to pump large sums of money into a campaign.
It’s been reported elsewhere that Bill 29 removed a requirement for candidates to disclose their donor lists before the election, but that’s not quite accurate.
Just as before, the UCP’s bill requires a disclosure report by March of the year after the election. But, importantly, it removes the provision allowing local jurisdictions to pass bylaws requiring pre-election disclosure—making it easier to keep things in the dark.
The effect of these two changes is plain and obvious: wealthy people with deep pockets will be allowed to pump large sums of money into a campaign by supporting a slate of candidates who are sympathetic to their interests, and you, dear voter, won’t know anything about it until it’s all over.
It doesn’t take much imagination, then, to see this as a mutually beneficial arrangement between a party determined to implement its deeply conservative, free-market agenda in all spheres, and those with deep pockets who stand to benefit from that agenda. Conacher called it a “legalized bribery system.”
The UCP has pitched Bill 29 as “levelling the playing field.” So said Kaycee Madu, who introduced the legislation when he still held the municipal affairs portfolio. Alberta’s municipalities have openly disagreed.
A threat to local democracy
The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) was involved in the consultation process for Bill 29. According to president Barry Morishita, the group was supportive of ideas like preventing candidates from rolling over war chests from one election to the next by requiring they donate to charity campaign surpluses over $1,000.
But the AUMA pushed back on other government proposals, such as preventing disclosure until months after the election, and dramatically increasing donation limits.
You have to remember, this is the root of our democracy for local elections.
When the feedback was not heeded, the AUMA released an unusually blunt statement in response to the legislation, accusing the government of rejecting “principles of local democracy.”
“You have to remember, this is the root of our democracy for local elections,” said Morishita. “This is a pretty important piece of legislation for municipalities.”
The new rules will have an impact on all municipal campaigns. But while the door is now wide open for serious money to influence races in Calgary and Edmonton, Morishita pointed out that campaigns in smaller centres are run on smaller budgets.
“We don’t think that people of means should have the ability to manipulate a race, and they can manipulate a mid-size or small race easier than a big race.”
Morishita, who has served as mayor of Brooks since 2016, cited his own campaign experience. “I didn’t even spend $10,000,” he said. “Just four people could fund a campaign against me with twice that amount.”
Levelling the playing field
Banning corporate and union donations but allowing a high personal donation limit can be easily circumvented by wealthy individuals, who can use family members or employees as donation surrogates.
The solution, according to Conacher, is simple: “To be democratic, the donation limit has to be an amount that the average voter can afford.”
The UCP is dramatically raising the amount an individual can give to campaigns.
Ordinary Albertans, of course, do not donate many thousands of dollars to political campaigns.
The jurisdiction doing it best in Canada is Quebec, which limits personal contributions to $100 per party or candidate per year, and $200 in an election year. Donations are not accepted by campaigns directly, but by Élections Québec, which vets and tracks contributions before passing them along to the campaign and publicly disclosing the name of the donor.
Quebec also supplements political parties with public funding, but Conacher is skeptical of that approach. He argues that large amounts of money are simply not necessary to run a political campaign in the digital age.
Of course, no party or candidate wants to unilaterally disarm if their opponent is sporting a massive war chest. But restricting all parties to small contributions that the majority of voters can afford—well, that certainly sounds like something akin to a level playing field.
Instead, the UCP is dramatically raising the amount an individual can give to campaigns, benefiting individuals with large amounts of money and the candidates they might support.
A questionable track record
Both the premier and his party have what might be charitably called a mixed record on upholding democratic principles when it comes to elections.
When Kenney was running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 2016 and 2017, he broke a pledge by declining to reveal the names of 63 donors who contributed nearly $400,000 to his Unite Alberta PAC.
He was not required by law to disclose them, and claimed the privacy of the donors outweighed concerns about transparency.
How you win is as important as winning.
Then there was the UCP leadership race where Kenney’s team infamously coordinated with “kamikaze” candidate Jeff Callaway.
That race prompted an investigation by the province’s independent elections commissioner, which resulted in donors being fined for illegal contributions—until the commissioner was fired by the UCP government mid-investigation in order “to streamline government, to remove redundancies, to save Alberta taxpayers hard-earned tax dollars.”
Details on regulations for third-party advertisers in municipal elections are expected this fall, but they’re unlikely to make a big difference, since Bill 29 removes all spending limits for such groups outside of the six months prior to election day.
To be sure, all political parties and candidates want more money to play with, and many are able to justify some ethical flexibility in fundraising by convincing themselves that the ends of wielding power justify the means of getting there.
But “how you win is as important as winning,” said Morishita.
Though Bill 29 is now law, Conacher says citizens can still push back by complaining to their MLA and questioning municipal candidates.
“Ask every candidate to disclose donors before election day, and if they say they won’t, don’t vote for them.”
Taylor Lambert is the Alberta politics writer for The Sprawl.
Now more than ever, we need strong independent journalism in Alberta. That's what The Sprawl is here for! When you become a Sprawl member, it means our writers, cartoonists and photographers can do more of the journalism we need right now. Become a Sprawl member today!
Support in-depth Calgary journalism.Sign Me Up!
The Sprawl connects Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can only keep doing this with community support. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!