Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley was a guest on the #abvote Google Hangout on April 9, 2015.

Notley’s NDP should ban corporate and union donations in municipal elections

One of the main promises made by the NDP before their win in the May 2015 provincial election was a commitment to ban corporate and union donations in provincial politics.

Current campaign finance laws allow individuals, corporations and labour unions to donate a maximum of $15,000 per year to a provincial political party in a non-election period and a maximum of $30,000 during an election period. The previous governing party, the Progressive Conservatives, relied heavily on corporate donations to fill their coffers but the new governing New Democratic Party and official opposition Wildrose Party have cultivated large individual donor bases that contribute smaller donations so they do not rely on larger donations.

The NDP should not limit the ban on corporate and union donations to the provincial level, they should also ban corporate and union donations in municipal elections. The provincial legislature approves the law that governs municipal election financing, which allows corporate, union and individual donations up to $5,000 during an election year. The provincial law also allows for an odd exemption that individual municipal candidates can contribute a maximum of $10,000 to their own campaign.

Research compiled by the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues in June 2014 found that in Edmonton’s recent municipal elections: (1) the most successful fundraiser was the victorious candidate in 100% of ward races; (2) successful candidates raised an average of three times more money than the second place candidate in their respective race, and four times more than all other candidates combined; and (3) on average, successful candidates received more than five times the number of donations be- tween $101 and $4,999 than other candidates, and close to triple the number of $5,000 donations (the maximum contribution).

‘The EFCL is concerned that some of our most dedicated and qualified potential public servants are getting priced out of office. It is also concerned about council members being placed in difficult situations, when the majority of the donations are coming from companies and unions that have a direct interest in decisions made by city council.’ – EFCL

Along with eliminating corporate and union donations, the NDP should also impose a cap on the total amount a candidate or campaign can spend during a campaign. While there are currently no rules, in 2010, Calgary mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi pledged to cap his campaign’s spending at $0.65 per resident.

The EFCL also wrote in their report that municipal candidates elected to Edmonton’s 12 councillor positions raised more than $80,000 on average in 2013, including three who raised more than $100,000 and two who raised less than $50,000. The most successful fundraiser was the victorious candidate in 100% of the ward races and successful candidates generally raised three times more money than the second place candidate. Many of these donations came from corporations and unions, including building developers who have a special interest in currying good relationships with municipal councillors.

In a recent op-ed in the Edmonton Journal, Public Interest Alberta‘s Larry Booi called on the new NDP government to institute campaign spending limits, lower contribution limits to $1,200 per year, impose much stronger rules on disclosure of contributions and spending and extend the rules on contributions and spending to cover party leadership and constituency contests. While Mr. Booi’s column focused on provincial campaign finance changes, there is no reason why they also cannot be extended to municipal election campaigns.

While the rules governing third-party campaigns in provincial elections are problematic, the provincial government needs to lay out fair rules governing financial disclosures and amounts that third-party campaigns and lobby groups can spend influencing voters in municipal elections. There are already plenty of examples of wealthy individuals attempting to advance their political agendas by supporting unaccountable lobby groups, as was the case with Calgary’s infamous Sprawl Cabal‘s plans to throw more than $1 million behind Preston Manning‘s “Municipal Governance Initiative,” and the anonymous donors behind the shady ‘St. Albert Think Tank.’

The province needs to create a formal enforcement and investigation mechanism to respond to complaints about potential breeches of the municipal campaign donation laws. In one case, both the City of St. Albert and the provincial government refused to verify the candidate financial disclosures or enforce them after complaints were made by members of the public.

“My role as returning officer is to receive the submissions that candidates provide … and to make them publicly available and that’s really the extent of our role in this process,” a St. Albert’s returning officer told the St. Albert Gazette in 2014. If the municipalities will not enforce the provincially-imposed laws, then the provincial government should create an organization that will.

Premier Rachel Notley and Alberta’s new NDP government have pledged to ban corporate and union donations in provincial politics, and they now have what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to clean up election finance laws in Alberta’s municipal elections as well.

Parkland report calls for political finance reform

The University of Alberta-based Parkland Institute released a new report this morning, Ending Pay to Play: The Need for Political Finance Reform in Alberta: “Given the consensus that exists between the government and official opposition to ban corporate and union donations, it should act immediately to do so. While this in itself would be a major victory for democracy, it is crucial that the government does not stop there, but rather works to fundamentally reform Alberta’s political culture in the public interest.”

14 thoughts on “Notley’s NDP should ban corporate and union donations in municipal elections

  1. Colin

    I agree as long as municipal campaign donors can get a tax credit. I suspect that is a factor for many small donors that can “tip the scales”.

    Reply
  2. Dave Cournoyer Post author

    Colin – Thanks for the comment. I suspect the lack of donation tax credits on the municipal level is one reason for the lack of oversight. At the provincial and federal level, the existence of tax credits and involvement of the CRA is certainly a reason why the elections authorities have more oversight over contribution rules. Maybe we need political donation tax credits at the municipal level too?

    Dave

    Reply
  3. Dave Cournoyer Post author

    Trevor – It could. In 2013, Dave Colburn did not accept corporate or union donations and he only placed 1,172 votes behind Tony Caterina in Ward 7, making that one of the closest races in the city. The results could have been different if Caterina had not accepted corporate donations (Caterina also received the endorsement of the Edmonton & District Labour Council in 2013).

    Dave

    Reply
  4. Anton

    Dave it is ridiculous to ban corporate donations. Legally they are “separate persons” and should be treated the same. This is nothing more than mean-spirited electioneering underpinned by leftist ideology.

    Sure, create limits, but don’t ban them.

    Reply
  5. Josh Kjenner

    Hey Dave,

    That seems like pretty flimsy logic for barring corporate donations. What about non-citizens–should they be barred from the ability to make political donations? Should I not be allowed to donate to a candidate I like in a riding I don’t live in?

    That banning corporate donations is a good thing seems to be perceived as a truism, but I’m not sure this notion holds up to scrutiny. Look at the federal scene: we banned corporate donations, and the Conservatives promptly created a populist fear machine to wring money out of people terrified that their kids will step on an AIDS-infected junkie needle when they’re at the park (which, I’ll add, the other two parties are eager to copy). Is this better? Are our federal politics vastly more democratic than our provincial or municipal politics? I’m not so sure… obviously corporate money in politics can be hugely problematic at a certain scale (e.g. the US) and, it’s probably too influential at present levels in Alberta, but eliminating it entirely seems give oxygen to the least savoury aspects of populism and demogagury. The parties need to get their money from somewhere…

    Reply
  6. David

    I am skeptical on how effective banning corporate and union donations will be at the provincial level. Mostly because I am not sure it really has had much benefit on the federal level. It has just caused the federal parties to change tactics and given the advantage to parties that were better at raising money from individuals with special interests (ex. the gun lobby). It does not eliminate the influence of money in campaigns and tends to parties to pander more to certain populist interests. However, if this change was combined with very strong spending limits it might work better.

    The most effective thing to do would to reduce the ridiculously high Alberta provincial contribution limits to a limit more in line with the rest of the country, say somewhere between $1,000 to $1,500 per contributor. This in itself would greatly reduce the influence of large union and corporate donors and make banning corporate and union donations mostly redundant.

    Reply
  7. Constituent

    The goal is to make sure that money, no matter its origins, does not buy elected office. Simple enough goal. Build some policy and legislate around it.

    Reply
  8. Jen

    The Federal government has already done that, they also restricted donations to 1000 dollars per person per year for all donations. The feds also eliminated the voter subsidy to individual parties. The provincial governments need to reform provincial election laws in the same manner. This means that Canadians only contribute to their party choice, and eliminates corporate and union influence.

    Reply
  9. tom

    Nothing wrong with corporate donations or raising money from the gun lobby. If you can raise money you should be allowed to. Period.

    Reply
  10. Al

    Another hole needs to be plugged: municipal councillors should not be allowed to vote on land-use or other such matters where the applicant contributed to the councillor’s campaign. By any measure, this is a conflict of interest.

    Reply
  11. Diane

    You missed the newest municipal lobby group. Rocky View County’s very own “Rocky View 2020” . Calgay’s “Sprawl Cabal” appears to have moved outside Calgary’s borders .

    Reply

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