Yesterday afternoon, Assembly Speaker and Tory MLA Ken Kowalski ejected Edmonton Ellerslie Liberal MLA Bharat Agnihotri from the Alberta Legislature for refusing to apologize for asking the following question of Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture Minister Hector Goudreau:
Mr. Agnihotri: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Premier, Minister of Finance, Minister of Health, Minister of Sustainable Resource Development all have secret donors to their leadership campaign. Can this minister assure this House that groups receiving this special treatment are not secret friends of top Tories?
Agnihotri probably could have asked a less loaded question, but I shudder to think what Albertans outrage would feel like had this happened to a Conservative MP in Ottawa asking a similar question to a Federal Liberal Minister. Here’s how Kowalski justified his decision:
Speaker: The question from the hon. Member for Edmonton-Ellerslie, the first one, which wasn’t dealt with, basically says, “If a group cannot raise matching funds up to $10,000, it will be considered on a nonmatching basis. However, documents tabled in this Assembly show that this government is breaking its own rules.” Well, that wasn’t even contested. There were no rules that were broken.
…political party matters are not the subject of the question period. Then the question: “Can this minister assure this House that groups receiving this special treatment” – now, the question is: what special treatment? – “are not secret friends of top Tories?” Boy, if that isn’t innuendo, you know, I must have just arrived. I’ve been here 28 years, and this is blatant innuendo.
It seems to me that two main forces collided during this moment: a poorly worded and loaded question, and a harsh ruling by the Speaker (who is also one of the most partisan Tory MLA’s in the Assembly). I think it’s quite fair to say that the Speaker went way too far in this ruling. The simplist way to defuse this question would have been for Minister Goudreau to utter one word in response to Agnihotri’s question: no.
But let’s look at the root of Agnihotri’s question: should internal party and leadership race finances be a matter of public transparency and accountability?
On the Federal level, it is very much a matter of public accountability – both endorsed by the Federal Liberals through their electoral financing legislation and through Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government’s Accountability Act. It’s unfortunate that Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party/Government disagrees with their federal cousins on this issue, because it is an issue of transparency and accountability – something that Premier Ed Stelmach even likes to talk about championing.
On Monday, Elections Alberta released their annual political contribution numbers:
The list of companies donating to the Tories dwarfed that of any other party in Alberta.
Energy and power giants listed include: EnCana ($10,775), TransCanada PipeLines ($12,650), Imperial Oil ($10,000), Nexen ($11,400), Atco Group ($10,650), Talisman Energy ($10,000), Suncor ($7,650), Enmax ($7,925), and Syncrude ($4,250).
Federal legislation passed last year bans contributions from corporations and unions, and caps individual donations at $1,000 to each political party. Ethics watchdogs argued the same should be introduced in Alberta.
“Donations are a means of influence,” said Duff Conacher, the co-ordinator of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch, arguing donations should be disclosed as they’re made to parties, rather than once a year.
“If you want to prevent corruption and waste, then you want to have a system of very restricted donations and full disclosure.”
The NDP received many large union donations totaling several thousands of dollars, which helped generate party revenues of about $625,000. The Alberta Liberals, who received several donations from the oilpatch, last week reported revenues of more than $1 million in 2006.
Though we are able to see contributions to political parties – and see how incredibly large these donations are – Albertans do not have the transparency and accountability in seeing the political contributions in the races that choose their leaders. This leaves Albertans with no transparency or accountability in the races that will decide who will potentially be Alberta’s Premier.
This lack of transparency and accountability leads back to the idea behind the question asked by Mr. Agnihotri: how do Albertans know that undisclosed donors from the PC Leadership campaign aren’t receiving special treatment through this program? Or any other program for that matter?