Partisan wrangling, maneuvering and infighting appears to have derailed much of the work assigned to the Special Select Ethics and Accountability Committee by the time MLAs on the all-party committee passed a motion last week asking the Legislative Assembly to extend the committee’s mandate into spring 2017.
The committee was struck last year to review the Conflicts of Interest Act, the Election Act, the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act and the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act. Albertans had just elected their first new government in 44 years and provincial politics felt euphoric, unfamiliar and exciting. It was not long before negativity and hyper-partisan politics took grip, smothering much of the collegiality between New Democratic Party and opposition MLAs on the committee.
Government House leader Brian Mason mused to reporters that the New Democratic Party government was considering scrapping the committee when its deadline to make submissions is reached this week. Although the committee was tasked with reviewing four Acts, it only met fifteen times over the past year.
Regardless of the future of this committee, changes need to be made to Alberta’s elections and elections finance laws. Even if the committee is scrapped, the government could introduce changes to Alberta’s elections laws in the spring legislative sitting.
The NDP should lower the maximum annual amount that individuals can donate to provincial political parties. The current maximum annual donation limits in Alberta is $30,000 during election periods and $15,000 outside of election periods. The current maximum annual donation for federal political parties in Canada is $1,525.
The NDP should also implement maximum limits to how much candidates, political parties and third-party groups can spend during the election period, as already exist for candidates in federal elections. The limits should be reasonable and could easily be tied to the number of eligible voters in each constituency, as is the case in federal elections.
One potential change that has not been discussed, at least not much in public, is the possibility that the government could scrap Alberta’s fake fixed-election law. Introduced in 2011, the law states that an election be called every four years between March 1 and May 31. Alberta is the only Canadian province with a fixed-election law that does not actually include a fixed-election day.
As Albertans will remember, there is nothing to stop a government from calling an election early, like Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives did in 2015. Scrapping this law would allow for the NDP to govern beyond the four year period, up to five years as stated in Section 4 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, meaning the next election could be held in 2020, not 2019.
The Legislative Assembly should grant the committee the time extension it has requested when MLAs reconvene on October 31, 2016. But it is difficult to imagine that both the NDP and opposition MLAs on the committee, especially Wildrose MLAs eager to embarrass the government, will conduct themselves any differently than they have in the past year since the Ethics and Accountability Committee was formed.