Tag Archives: Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee

Labour Minister Christina Gray. Photo from premierofalberta on Flickr.

NDP expands Third Party Advertiser law to cover ‘Political Action Committee’ activities

Photo: Labour Minister Christina Gray. (Photo from premierofalberta on Flickr)

Labour Minister Christina Gray , who is responsible for the Alberta NDP government’s democratic renewal initiatives, introduced Bill 32: An Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta into the Legislative Assembly on December 4, 2017.

David Swann Liberal MLA Calgary-Mountain View

David Swann

The bill pulls ‘Political Action Committees’ under the Election Finances and Contribution Disclosure Act by expanding the activities covered in the Third Party Advertisers section beyond just advertising. If passed, the law would now cover typical PAC activities, such as selling memberships, fundraising, collecting or compiling information about voters, and other administrative activity for a party, candidate, leadership contestant or nomination contestant.

The bill would limit individual PAC spending to $150,000 on political activities in the three months ahead of Alberta’s fixed election period and  to $150,000 during the election period. Only $3,000 of the $150,000 would be able to be used to promote or oppose the election of one or more candidates in any one electoral district.

The bill would also prevent collusion between PACs, preventing groups of PACs from pooling their funds and resources. The bill would create an independent Election Commissioner who would be responsible for “investigating complaints and recommending prosecutions.”

The bill falls short of limiting annual donations to PACs and banning corporate, union and out-of-province donations, which a private members’ bill introduced by Liberal MLA David Swann and championed by leader David Khan proposed to do.

Rick Strankman Alberta United Conservative Drumheller Stettler MLA

Rick Strankman

“Simply put, our bill is a better bill and will do a better job of getting dark money out of politics,” Khan said in a press release responding to Bill 32.

As an expanded list of PAC-type activities now fall under the province’s election finance laws governing third party advertisersit is my understanding that all donations to registered PACs will be disclosed to Elections Alberta, eliminating the ‘dark money‘ element of PACs in Alberta.

Bill 32 also makes a number of amendments to the Election Act, including the ability of Elections Alberta to collect information of 16 and 17-year-olds in order to automatically register them to vote when they turn 18, extend advance voting by one day, and improve mobile voting stations.

Gray’s Bill 32 also incorporates some changes around government advertising during election periods that were included in a private members’ bill introduced by Drumheller-Stettler UCP MLA Rick Strankman in 2015.

Then a Wildrose MLA, Strankman’s Bill 203: Election (Restrictions on Government Advertising) Amendment Act was referred to the Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee in November 2015, but was never formally dealt with before the dysfunctional committee disbanded in September 2016.

With only three days remaining in the Legislative session, it is expected this bill will pass third-reading before MLA’s break for the holiday season on Thursday, December 7, 2017.


Alberta Party leadership race extended

Greg Clark Alberta Party MLA

Greg Clark

We have heard a lot of talk but have not seen much activity in the Alberta Party leadership race since current leader Greg Clark announced he would step down 25 days ago. The party released the rules of its leadership race on December 4 and, perhaps realizing the clock is ticking, moved the date of the leadership vote from February 7 to February 27.

Ron Dunseith will serve as Chief Returning Officer for the Alberta Party’s 2018 leadership race. Dunseith served as President of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta from 1999 to 2002 and the Chief Returning Officer for the party’s 2017 leadership campaign. He also served as campaign co-chairman of Dave Hancock‘s campaign during the PC Party’s 2006 leadership election.

Should the Ethics and Accountability Committee be given a second chance?

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.

Levelling the playing field in Alberta Elections

For many decades, Alberta’s old Progressive Conservative government benefited greatly from large corporate donors which would help keep the governing party’s campaign war-chest flush with cash. It was well-known in Alberta political circles that the PC Party had the goal of always having enough money in their bank account to run two back-to-back election campaigns at any time. And usually they did.

The first law passed by Alberta’s New Democratic Party government after its election in May 2015 banned of corporate and union donations. Limiting contributions to individual donors was the first move in what is expected to be an overhaul of Alberta’s outdated elections laws. It was a good place to start, but there is much more work to be done.

The all-party MLA Special Select Ethics and Accountability Committee was created last year in order to review the Election Act, the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, the Conflicts of Interest Act, and the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act. The committee will make recommendations to the government for changes to the four laws and any changes introduced by the government will be debated in the Legislative Assembly.

Here are three changes that have been debated by the committee recently:

Rod Loyola Edmonton Ellerslie NDP

Rod Loyola

Reimbursements: A motion introduced by Edmonton-Ellerslie MLA Rod Loyola on August 10, 2016 recommended “that the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act be amended to provide for a rebate of 50 per cent of registered parties’ and registered candidates’ campaign expenditures provided that campaigns receive at least 10 per cent of the vote cast and file all required financial returns.” Similar subsidies exist in federal elections and in many other provinces.

I understand the arguments in favour of this policy, but unfortunately the NDP MLAs are not going into great lengths to explain them. I do not believe these types reimbursements actually “level the playing field,” as Mr. Loyola argued when he proposed the motion. These types of reimbursements reward candidates and parties that spend the most money, even if they lose the election. A very generous tax credit system already exists for individuals who donate to candidates and political parties, and in my opinion that should be sufficient.

If the MLAs truly want to level the playing field through a financial reimbursement program, they should study the funding system that existed federally between 2004 and 2015, which tied a financial reimbursement to political parties to the number of votes they earned in an election.

Graham Sucha MLA

Graham Sucha

Spending Limits: Last week, I wrote about the committee’s recommendation to create campaign spending limits and I was pleased to see Calgary-Shaw MLA Graham Sucha have his original motion amended to raise to initial proposed limits (which I believed were too low). The new proposal would increase the limits per campaign to $70,000 for local campaigns and an $80,000 limit for four northern constituencies. Party province-wide campaign would be limited to spending $0.80 per eligible voter, which is similar to the limit that exists in Ontario.

I do believe it is arbitrary to simply name four constituencies as exemptions, as the province’s electoral boundaries will be redrawn before the next election and these four constituency may not exist in their current form when the next election is called. It might make more sense to create a formula based on population and geography to determine whether special exceptions are required for spending limits in northern and remote rural constituencies.

Chris Nielsen MLA

Chris Nielsen

Donation Limits: Currently, any individual can donate a maximum of $15,000 annually to a political party outside of election periods and $30,000 to a political party during election periods. A motion introduced by Edmonton-Decore MLA Chris Nielsen and amended by Bonnyville-Cold Lake MLA Scott Cyr would lower financial contribution limits to $4,000 during election periods and $2,300 outside election periods.

The committee continues to meet this week, so I am anticipating there will be more to write about in the days to come.

NDP MLA Graham Sucha (left) with MLAs Joe Ceci, Shannon Phillips and Kathleen Ganley.

Spending limits for election candidates? Yes, Please.

Calgary-Shaw NDP MLA Graham Sucha is proposing there be a limit to how much money provincial candidates and parties can spend on election campaigns.

At a recent meeting of the Special Select Ethics and Accountability Committee, Mr. Sucha proposed local candidate campaign spending be limited to $40,000 for most constituencies and $50,000 for larger northern constituencies and provincial campaigns limited to $1.6 million per party. There are currently no spending limits in Alberta and our province is currently the only province in Canada without spending limits.

Alberta voters swept out cash-flush Progressive Conservative candidates in favour of the cash-strapped New Democrats in 2015, but it has generally been the case in Alberta elections that the richest campaigns win on election day. The absence of spending limits has allowed PC candidates to wildly outspend their opposition during that party’s 44 years as government from 1971 to 2015.

In the 2015 election, a handful of PC candidates spent incredibly large sums of money on local campaigns – Edmonton-Whitemud candidate Stephen Mandel‘s campaign spent $132,991 and ended the campaign with a $135,974 surplus. Lowering the spending limits would prevent parties from using these large funds held in trust following the last election in that constituency in the next election (I would expect they would be transferred to other targeted constituencies).

Federal candidates in Alberta are limited to spending between $200,000 and $270,000 depending on the riding they are running for election in. As provincial constituencies in Alberta are considerably smaller than federal ridings, it is expected that any limits would be lower.

Back in February I proposed ten ways that the election process in Alberta could be improved, and spending limits was my third recommendation. While I do believe the spending limits Mr. Sucha has proposed may be too low, especially for the provincial parties, I do believe he is on the right track. There should be spending limits in Alberta elections.


The committee also debated a motion introduced by Edmonton-Decore NDP MLA Chris Nielsen and amended by Bonnyville-Cold Lake Wildrose MLA Scott Cyr that would lower financial contribution limits to $4,000 during election periods and $2,300 outside election periods. Albertans can currently donate $30,000 to political parties during election and by-election periods and $15,000 outside election and by-election periods.

NDP leader Rachel Notley, surrounded by her party's Calgary candidates in the 2015 election.

1 year later – has the NDP kept their election promises to improve ethics in government?

Days after the Alberta New Democratic Party was elected with a majority government in 2015, I wrote a column outlining the promises made in the party’s election platform to improve ethics in government. One year later, here is a look at those six platform points and whether the NDP have kept their promises to implement them.

(2.1) We will ban both corporate and union donations to political parties.

This was the first law passed by the NDP after they formed government. Introduced by Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, Bill 1: An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta banned corporate and union donations to provincial political parties in Alberta. The received unanimous support in the Legislature and retroactively came into effect on June 15, 2015.

It is banned provincially and federally but it is still legal for corporations and unions to make financial contributions to municipal election candidates in Alberta. There is still time for the NDP to amend the Local Authorities Elections Act to ban these donations before the October 2017 municipal elections.

(2.2) We will make infrastructure decisions and priorities transparent with a public “infrastructure sunshine list,” so that funding goes to build the most important projects rather than to promote the political fortunes of the PCs.

A promise made by Premier Rachel Notley at a campaign stop in Calgary on April 17, 2015. An NDP press release at the time said that “[t]he list will indicate how projects are prioritized, including the standards used to make the decisions, and will identify when and how changes are made to those priorities.”

Infrastructure Minister Brian Mason said in July 2015 that a list would be released soon but by November 2015 he told reporters that an “artificial order” of priority might create too much animosity between municipalities. The NDP still have until 2019 to implement this promise but I suspect they have decided the political blowback from municipal governments and school boards would cause more trouble than it is worth for the provincial government.

(2.3) We will strengthen the Conflict of Interest Act to prevent MLAs from using their position to benefit their own financial interests or that of political friends, and to strengthen cooling-off periods for former political staff. We will also expand the application of the Act to apply to all senior staff of all of our province’s agencies, boards and commissions.

The Select Special Committee on Ethics and Accountability was created in 2015 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.

The committee is chaired by Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville NDP MLA Jessica Littlewood and is composed of 10 NDP MLAs, 5 Wildrose MLAs, and one Progressive Conservative, Liberal and Alberta Party MLA. The committee is expected to submit its recommendations for amendments to the Acts in September 2016. A motion introduced by Alberta Party MLA Greg Clark to extend the committee’s mandate until March 2017 failed last week.

(2.4) We will amend the Elections Act to prohibit MLAs from using government resources during elections and we will ensure the Chief Electoral officer can effectively investigate breaches of the Act.

This could be included in the Special Select Committee for Ethics and Accountability recommendations expected to be completed in September 2016. A private members’ bill introduced by Drumheller-Stettler Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman in 2016 that would ban government advertising during election periods was referred to this committee.

(2.5) We will extend the sunshine list to include our province’s agencies, boards and commissions.

Bill 5: Public Sector Compensation Transparency Act was introduced by Ms. Ganley on November 5, 2015 and came into effect on December 11, 2015. This bill extended the sunshine list to require compensation disclosure for certain employees who work for agencies, boards and commissions, public post-secondary institutions, Offices of the Legislature and provincial health authorities.

(2.6) We will respect the independence of all-party committees, and will work to respect and maintain the independence and adequate funding of the Officers of the Legislature, such as the Auditor General.

This is a perennial pledge made by opposition politicians that in practice is difficult to prove when the party forms government. When the NDP won a majority government on May 5, 2015, they also won  a majority majorities on the all-party committees of the Legislature. Like all majority governments, they are using their majority to push forward their agenda at the committee level.

As long as our legislative system is dominated by the government leadership it is unlikely that MLAs committees will actually be independent of influence from the Premier’s Office. There is little evidence to suggest that MLA committees are now controlled any more or any less than they were under the previous PC Party government.

Funding for the eight Offices of the Legislature has decreased by $26,300,000 from $152,407,000 in 2015-2016 to $126,107,000 in 2016-2017, largely due to a decrease in funding for the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer (because the next election is not expected to be held until 2019).

Ethics Commissioner Complaints

Responding to a request by Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon, Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler investigated allegations that two fundraisers attended by Ms. Notley were in violation of the Conflicts of Interest Act. Ms. Trussler’s report concluded that Ms. Notley was not in breach of the act with respect to either of Mr. Nixon’s complaints.

Questions have been raised about the results of another investigation made by Ms. Trussler into allegations that former PC Finance Minister Robin Campbell had violated the Conflicts of Interest Act through his activities as President of the Coal Association of Canada. Political strategist Corey Hogan penned a letter to Ms. Trussler asking for clarification of how she interpreted the Act in this investigation.

Thousands of Albertans packed the Legislature Grounds to watch Premier Rachel Notley and the NDP cabinet be sworn-in.

10 ways to Renew Democracy in Alberta

The first law created by Alberta’s New Democratic Party government’s after its election win in 2015 was Bill 1: An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta, which banned corporate and union donations to provincial political parties.

Following the passage of this law, the Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee was tasked with reviewing the Election Act, the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, the Conflicts of Interest Act, and the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act.

Christina Gray Edmonton Mill Woods MLA

Christina Gray

The MLA committee is chaired by Edmonton-Mill Woods MLA Christina Gray, who was recently appointed as Minister Responsible for Democratic Renewal, and includes NDP, Wildrose, Progressive Conservative, Liberal and Alberta Party MLAs.

There has not been a comprehensive review of the Election Act in 35 years. Changes to the Act should recognize the current realities and advances in technology while ensuring the election process in Alberta is fair, transparent, accountable and efficient.

Ian Urquhart shared some of his recommendations to the committee in a recent newspaper opinion-editorial. I have already written about how the Alberta government can reform how electoral boundaries are drawn, and without diving into the complex topic of electoral reform (which is currently being dealt with at the federal level), here are ten ideas that I believe could help improve the democratic process in Alberta:

  1. Introduce Mandatory Voting as part of an intensive civics education campaign for Albertans. Voter turnout in provincial elections is abysmally low and has only surged higher than 60 percent twice in the past forty years (in the 1982 and 1993 elections). Like filing your taxes or graduating high school, voting is a civic responsibility in which all citizens should be encouraged, and required, to participate.
  2. Include a None of the Above option on the ballot in provincial elections. This would allow voters to express valid feelings of displeasure with the candidates listed on the ballot through a None of the Above option. If None of the Above receives the most votes, then a by-election will be held with a new group of candidates.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. If we are going to have fixed elections for general elections in Alberta, then let’s actually have a fixed election day. It is time to eliminate the open-ended March 1 to May 31 fixed election period, which was passed by the Progressive Conservative government in 2011 and is strangely unique to Alberta. All other provinces with the exception of Nova Scotia have an actual fixed election day.
  6. If we are going to have fixed election days for general elections, we should have fixed election days for by-elections in order to determine when a by-election will be called to fill vacancies in the Legislative Assembly. Current rules only say that a by-election will be called within six months of a vacancy.
  7. Hold Election Day on a weekend and extend voting hours over Saturday and Sunday to allow for more access to the voting stations. Advance voting is currently held over a four day period, so there is no reason why the Election Day cannot be extended over two days. Moving the Election Day to the weekend will make voting easier for citizens who are unable to cast their ballots on a single weekday.
  8. Introduce automated voting tabulators like those used in the 2014 by-elections and by municipalities like the City of Edmonton since the mid-1990s. This would allow for the ballots to be counted in a more efficient and timely manner.
  9. Ban corporate and union donations in municipal elections by amending the Local Authorities Elections Act. Motions supporting this idea have been endorsed by Edmonton City Council, Edmonton Public School Board and Fort Saskatchewan City Council.
  10. Give Elections Alberta the authority and resources to investigate violations of the Local Authorities Elections Act. Some municipalities are currently unwilling or do not have the resources to investigate violations of this law.

The committee is accepting written recommendations until February 26, 2016, which can be emailed to EthicsandAccountability.Committee@assembly.ab.ca.