Liberal Party leader David Khan and Liberal MLA David Swann (photo from Facebook)

Alberta Liberals deserve credit for pushing PAC issue onto the agenda

Photo: Liberal Party leader David Khan and Liberal MLA David Swann (photo from Facebook)

Political Action Committees will be back up for debate before MLAs depart Edmonton for the Christmas break at the end of next week.

Christina Gray Edmonton Mill Woods MLA

Christina Gray

Last week, Calgary-Mountain View Liberal MLA David Swann tabled Bill 214: An Act to Regulate Political Action Committees in the Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. The private members’ bill would amend the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act to create a legal definition for PACs, require PACs to be registered with Elections Alberta and subject them to the same financial disclosure and contribution rules as other political entities. The bill would also ban corporate, union and out-of-province donations, and prohibit political entities from donating to PACs.

“We need to shine a light on the unregulated dark money that is corrupting our democracy,” Liberal Party leader David Khan said in a Liberal Caucus news release. “Albertans deserve to know who has donated and who is donating to PACs, how much they are donating, and where this money is going afterwards. It’s the only way they can be confident that big money is not buying and selling our democracy.”

Khan made PACs one of his top issues after winning the party leadership in June 2017. He is currently running as a candidate in the December 4, 2017 by-election in Calgary-Lougheed.

PACs have become a big issue in Alberta politics since 2015, when the New Democratic Party government banned corporate and union donations to political parties as their first piece of legislation. While that action was needed and widely praised, it unintentionally opened the floodgates for now banned political party donations to be poured into PACs.

Like flowing water, political money will find the path of least resistance.

It did not take long before wealthy donors, now unable to fund political parties, began pouring funds into unregulated PACs, which with the exception of advertising activities, fall outside of Alberta’s political finance laws. The most notable PAC created since the NDP banned corporate political party donations was Jason Kenney‘s Unite Alberta PAC, which supported his campaign for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and the United Conservative Party.

Swann’s bill defines PACs as “a corporation or group established or maintained for the primary purpose of accepting political action contributions and incurring political action expenses to engage in political promotion but does not include (i) a registered party, or (ii) a registered constituency association.”

And under the bill, a PAC must apply for registration with Elections Alberta when it has incurred expenses of $1000 or plans to incur political action expenses of at least $1000, or when it has accepted contributions of $1000 or plans to accept contributions of at least $1000.

The Order Paper for Monday, December 4, 2017 shows that Labour Minister Christina Gray, who is also responsible for democratic reform, is scheduled to introduce Bill 32: An Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta for first reading. Gray has said the government would introduce legislation regulating PACs, and if this bill does that, it will likely remove Swann’s bill off the Order Paper because of its similar focus.

We will have to wait until Gray’s Bill 32 is tabled before we know what action the NDP government plans to take, but even if their bill is removed from the order papers, Swann and Khan deserve the credit for making unregulated and unaccountable Political Action Committees an issue in Alberta politics.

11 thoughts on “Alberta Liberals deserve credit for pushing PAC issue onto the agenda

  1. Jerrymacgp

    While I think most of us here would support the overall thrust of legislation reining in PACs, as in most such matters the devil will be in the details. Any such law would have to be very carefully crafted to survive a potential Charter challenge.

    The Citizens United case effectively gutted political finance rules south of the border. While our Charter is differently designed than the US Bill of Rights, most notably with its “reasonable limits” clause, there still remains a risk that laws banning or restraining PACs could be similarly hobbled by a Charter ruling on freedom of expression.

    The US courts have essentially equated money with speech; hopefully Canadian courts don’t end up doing the same thing here.

    Reply
  2. Conrad

    The province has no more business regulating PACs than it does regulating a bake sale. This is ridiculous. The only dark spectre over our democracy are invasive, nanny-state bills like the Liberals have. Who cares if the unions have a PAC? It’s their business.

    Reply
    1. David

      A very poor analogy. I don’t have to buy or eat your baked goods if they appear to be of questionable quality. I do have to live with the government bankrolled by corrupt money laundered through PAC’s and the decisions that government may make to benefit its anonymous wealthy donors.

      Reply
  3. Bob Chapman

    Take a page from the Con’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda; mandatory incarceration and charges of High Treason for attempting to undermine Democracy in this way.

    NDP and Liberals see the need to address this. Cons (or whatever they want to call their corrupt group this month) are the problem needing addressed. If they can’t follow the laws, put them with the rest that don’t. Bowden sounds like a place they’d be surrounded by their own lack of ethics.

    Reply
  4. Jeff Wedman

    Dave

    Considering that you sit on the advisory board of a PAC (Progress Alberta), what do you think about your organization’s ability to speak it’s mind becoming constrained according to the whims of this and possibly future conservative governments. Legislation like this that restricts freedom of expression is a knife that cuts both ways.

    Reply
    1. Dave Cournoyer Post author

      Hi Jeff – Thanks for the comment. I don’t think making PAC funding transparent will restrict freedom of expression. PACs should be allowed to exist, but they should play by the same, or similar rules, as other actors in the election and political process.
      – Dave

      Reply
      1. Ernie

        And that very definition restricts freedom of expression. There’s something in this country called the charter and I hope a lawyer goes and challenges this retrograde legislation.

        Govern yourself accordingly.

        Reply
      2. Jeff Wedman

        The transparency is not the issue. It is the restrictions on who and what organizations can contribute, and the limits imposed on how much they can put forward. This bill is 100% a limitation on freedom of expression. By limiting businesses and unions from contributing to PACs, you are effectively removing any opportunity for these organizations to express their collective beliefs. I don’t see how this can be viewed as a reasonable limitation on one of our fundamental charter rights. Especially when there is no objective evidence that PACs have “corrupted” democracy in Alberta. In the last provincial election, the PC Party out spent the NDP $4.3 million to $1.6 million. The Alberta electorate was not bought then, so why 2 1/2 years later are we hyperventilating about the issue. The answer is because the Liberals are fighting for a basic political existence and the NDP are well down in the polls. There was a cold calculation done by the NDP that they are willing to sacrifice their union-backed PACs to strike what they believe to be a bigger blow against Conservative affiliated PACs. I would hate to break it to you, but there isn’t much high minded principles behind this legislation.

        Reply
        1. David

          One could argue that generally organizations have interests not collective beliefs and even then those interests are not always unanimous among them. Do all dairy farmers , restaurant owners or owners of construction companies vote the same way? I doubt it. The freedom of expression is more at the individual level and by allowing those organizations with the most money unfettered opportunity to promote their interests would be to the detriment of individuals with fewer financial resources trying to express themselves.

          Reply

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