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Alberta Politics

Election bills give Albertans more democracy, less transparency and accountability.

Albertans could soon be given more opportunities to cast their ballots but with much less transparency about and accountability for who is spending money to influence their votes.

The United Conservative Party government continued to unwrap its electoral reform package this week with the introduction of:

Bill 26: Constitutional Referendum Amendment Act: introduced by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, the bill amends the Constitutional Referendum Act law to allow for province-wide referendums to be held on non-constitutional issues

Bill 27: Alberta Senate Election Amendment Act: also introduced by Schweitzer, this bill makes amendments to the Alberta Senate Election Act passed in June 2019. 

Bill 29: Local Authorities Election Amendment Act: introduced by Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu, this bill introduces major changes to the law that governs municipal elections in Alberta.

These bills are part of a series of election bills that are expected to also include future bills allowing for the recall of MLAs, municipal politicians and school trustees, citizen initiated referendums, and major changes to provincial election laws.

Doug Schweitzer Calgary Alberta Conservative
Doug Schweitzer

The three bills introduced this week provide more opportunities for Albertans to vote for candidates and on issues, but they also claw back important transparency and accountability rules implemented by the previous New Democratic Party government less than two years ago.

It has almost been 50 years since the last time a province-wide plebiscite was initiated by the Alberta government. Bill 26 would allow the provincial government to hold referendums on non-constitutional issues, like creating an Alberta Pension Plan or deciding if we should remain on Daylight Saving Time. Providing an opportunity for Albertans to cast ballots on important issues can be a powerful tool to engage voters, but the timing and wording of such votes can also be intentionally manipulative.

The bill allows third-party groups, colloquially known as political action committees, to spend up to $500,000 on advertising up from the current $150,000 limit. Third-party groups that spend less than $350,000 on advertising during a referendum would not be required to file financial statements with Elections Alberta.

Schweitzer did not hold a press conference to announce the bill, so it is unclear why he chose to include such a massive gap in transparency.

Changes to municipal election laws included in Bill 29 are being framed by Madu as helping “level the playing field” for new candidates running for municipal councils and school boards by not allowing incumbents to carry over campaign war chests between elections and increasing the amount candidates can spend ahead of the election period from $2,000 to $5,000.

Bill 29 raises the election period donation limit from $4,000 back up to $5,000 and allows candidates to self-finance their campaign up to $10,000, reversing a number of changes made by the NDP government in 2018 that have not had a chance to be tested in a municipal election campaign.

Madu’s bill would also make it legal for wealthy individuals to donate up to $5,000 each to as many candidates as they want in any municipal or school board election across the province, effectively removing the cap on individual donations.

Eliminating the ability of incumbents to store campaign surpluses in war chests for future elections might lower the amount of cash on hand at the beginning of an election campaign. But in Edmonton at least, only two city councillors – Sarah Hamilton and Ben Henderson – reported having surpluses of more than $10,000 at the end of the 2017 election, suggesting that war chests are not necessarily a significant issues in the capital city.

Raising the donation limit could strengthen the advantage of incumbents with name recognition and developed political networks running against challengers who may be seeking political office for the first time.

The advantage of name recognition that helps incumbents get re-elected in large numbers at the municipal level is a feature that predates any of the changes to municipal election finance laws introduced by the previous NDP and Progressive Conservative governments over the past decade. The incumbent advantage even existed when there were no donation limits.

Bill 29 removes the requirement that candidates disclose their donors ahead of election day, which allows voters to see who is financially supporting candidates before they head to the ballot box.

The bill also removes spending limits for third-party groups before the start of the election period, allowing groups like Calgary’s infamous Sprawl Cabal of land developers free reign to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertising before May 1, 2021.

Madu’s Bill 29 introduces big money back into municipal elections under the guise of fairness and without creating any of the structural changes required to design a real competitive electoral environment at the municipal level.

Bill 29 also removes all references to the Election Commissioner, a housekeeping item necessitated by the controversial firing of the Commissioner by the UCP government in November 2019. In its place, the bill creates a Registrar of Third Parties, though it is unclear if the person holding this title would have the legal investigative authority of the now defunct Election Commissioner.

In past elections many municipalities simply did not have the resources available to enforce municipal election finance rules, so in some cases complaints were simply left uninvestigated.

Some of these changes were expected and were included in the UCP’s 2019 election platform, others were necessitated by inconsistencies in the changes made by the NDP in 2018, and some have come completely out of left-field.

Alberta’s election laws should be dynamic and designed to encourage and facilitate participation by voters and candidates, not to hide the identities of those who would spend money influencing election campaigns.

Overall, these bills could probably be summed up as one step forward for democracy and two steps back for transparency and accountability.

Changes coming to provincial election laws

Joseph Schow Cardston-Siksika MLA UCP
Joseph Schow

These changes are likely a taste of what is to come from the recently appointed Select Special Democratic Accountability Committee. Chaired by Cardston-Siksika UCP MLA Joseph Schow, the committee will review Alberta’s Election Act and the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act within the next six months and has be tasked with answering a series of questions submitted by Schweitzer within four months.

Along with Schow, the committee membership includes Drumheller-Stettler MLA Nate Horner, Grande Prairie MLA Tracy Allard, Calgary-Buffalo MLA Joe Ceci, Edmonton-South MLA Thomas Dang, Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche MLA Laila Goodridge, Calgary-Klein MLA Jeremy Nixon, Edmonton-Whitemud MLA Rakhi Pancholi, Highwood MLA R.J. Sigurdson, Drayton Valley-Devon MLA Mark Smith and Edmonton-Manning MLA Heather Sweet.

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Alberta Politics

Fair Deal report a response to fringe separatist threat and distraction from UCP job cuts

The final report of the Fair Deal Panel was released yesterday. Here are my quick thoughts on the final report.

A reaction to a threat from the right: The appointment of the Fair Deal Panel was a direct response to a perceived threat to the United Conservative Party from the political right and fringe separatists following the re-election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal government in October 2019.

The panel, which was announced by Premier Jason Kenney at the Manning Networking Conference in Red Deer, was a relief value to give frustrated Conservatives an opportunity to express their anger at the Liberals and a steering wheel to allow the Premier to control the political narrative around Alberta’s political relationship with Ottawa.

Kenney played a major role in the federal Conservative Party’s campaign against the Trudeau Liberals, with the premier even traveling to Ontario and Manitoba to campaign during the election, but despite all the bluster it appeared to have little impact on voters in those provinces on Election Day. The Conservatives did very well in Alberta, earning 69% of the vote, but saw their support decline in almost every riding Kenney campaigned in.

A federal Conservative landslide in Alberta is nothing new, it literally happens every four years. But the latest electoral division reflects an increasing feeling inside Alberta that the rest of Canada does not support the province’s energy industry and a growing feeling outside of Alberta that the province is a laggard on climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

Alienation and anger at Ottawa is omnipresent in Alberta politics, but the separatist threat that spooked Kenney seven months ago has largely evaporated and the crash in the international price of oil and the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of the provinces being able to work with a federal government for financial relief.

Fair Deal Panel meant to distract from the UCPs job cuts agenda: Creating external enemies and manufacturing crises is something that Kenney excels at. The focus on the Fair Deal report and its recommendations are meant to distract Albertans from the UCP’s political agenda closer to home.

Despite claiming to be obsessed with creating jobs, Kenney’s government has done the opposite by cutting tens of thousands of jobs in Alberta’s public service, schools, colleges and universities. A high-profile dispute with Alberta’s doctors, which included an incident where Health Minister Tyler Shandro yelled at a physician at the driveway of his home, has mired the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UCP is also moving forward with plans to close and privatize Alberta’s provincial parks.

And it is expected that the Kenney government could soon introduce anti-union legislation and a $2/hour rollback of the $15/hour general minimum wage, directly targeting many of the low income service workers who have been praised as “heroes” during the pandemic.

Police and pension plans: There is little in the final report that the UCP government wasn’t already prepared to pursue or consider. Kenney has said that the government plans to implement or study 23 of the 25 recommendations in the panel’s final report.

Despite public opinion polls showing Albertans do not support replacing the Canada Pension Plan with an Alberta Pension Plan and replacing the RCMP with an Alberta police service, Kenney’s response to the panel report indicated the government was planning to study the two proposals. Both ideas are expensive and likely within provincial jurisdiction to implement, but the creation of an Alberta Pension Plan contradicts other proposals in the report meant to break down trade barriers and increase labour mobility with other provinces.

Equalization referendum: Kenney has spent much of the past year threatening to hold a referendum to remove the equalization article from the Constitution of Canada, so it was unsurprising to see the panel recommend it as well. The threat originated with frustration around delays with the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the federal government’s purchase of the pipeline did not convince Kenney to abandon the pledge.

In its report, the panel admits that a provincial referendum will not have the power to force the federal government or other provinces to reopen the Constitution or renegotiate the equalization formula.

There is probably no scenario where Alberta, a province that is wealthier than most other Canadian provinces even during an economic downtown, will receive funds from a national equalization program. But the unfairness of equalization is a talking point engrained in mainstream Alberta that is not based in fact and is not going away anytime soon.

The panel suggests holding a referendum on equalization would “morally obligate” the federal government and provinces to negotiate amendments to the Constitution. The same argument has worked unsuccessfully for thirty-years on the issue of Senate reform, which the panel report also recommends the province continue to pursue through provincial Senate Nominee elections.

Hijacking the 2021 Municipal Elections: As I first wrote more than a year ago, it is no coincidence that the proposed referendum and the rebooted Senate Nominee election will take place on the same day as the municipal elections across Alberta, October 18, 2021. The timing of these two votes will be used to increase turnout by conservative voters in the municipal and school board elections in an effort to boost support for candidates aligned with the UCP.

Although they dominate in federal and provincial elections, Conservatives have less success at the municipal level where candidates campaign as individuals and mayors offices, town councils and school boards have been more likely to be populated with Albertans more closely aligned with the NDP or Liberals.

Candidates in Alberta’s previous Senate Nominee elections ran under provincial party banners or as Independents. Changes introduced in the Senate Election Act in 2019 (which the report incorrectly refers to as the Senatorial Selection Act, which expired in 2016), will allow candidates to be marked on as a ballot as affiliated with federal political parties.

Injecting a federal party like the Conservative Party of Canada and its resources into a provincial vote being held during a municipal election will muddy the waters during the municipal election, forcing equalization and federal issues into local campaigns that usually focus on local issues. With the federals Liberals having abandoned their Senate caucus and the New Democratic Party continuing to call for Senate abolition, it is unlikely that the those parties will have any interest in participating in the Senate election, leaving the Conservatives to collect voter data and drive conservative voters to the polls.

Perhaps the best example of how the Fair Deal report is a partisan political document and not a serious effort in public engagement is this map found on page 52 of the report.

The map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.
The map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.

Framed as an East versus West political crisis over satisfaction with Canada, the map excludes British Columbia, where 60% of respondents to the Angus Reid Institute survey in January 2020 said they were satisfied with “the way things are going in Canada.”

The map also wedges Manitoba into the western bloc by listing that province’s dissatisfied number when the survey showed that 54% of Manitobans were satisfied.

So I fixed the map.

An edited version of the map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.
An edited version of the map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.

The only two provinces where a majority of survey respondents were unsatisfied are Alberta and Saskatchewan, which also happen to be the only two provinces where a majority of voters supported the Conservative Party of Canada…

Categories
Alberta Politics Daveberta Podcast

Episode 53: COVID-19 provides cloud cover over Alberta’s economic crisis

“…in a crisis there are no capitalists left. Everybody is a socialist.”

Zain Velji Daveberta Podcast
Zain Velji

Zain Velji, campaign strategist and Vice President Strategy at Northweather joins host Dave Cournoyer and producer Adam Rozenhart on this episode of the Daveberta Podcast to discuss the how COVID-19 is providing cloud cover to and accelerating Calgary’s economic problems and how the pandemic could provide an opportunity to reshape politics and policies at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.

We also discuss whether the United Conservative Party government is pushing forward with a now outdated agenda and we dive into wild speculation about how this pandemic and economic crisis could impact the 2023 election in Alberta.

The Daveberta Podcast is a member of the Alberta Podcast Network, powered by ATB. The Alberta Podcast Network includes more than 30 great made-in-Alberta podcasts.

You can listen and subscribe to the Daveberta Podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotifyStitcher, or wherever you find podcasts online. We love feedback from our listeners, so let us know what you think of this episode and leave a review where you download.

Find us on TwitterInstagram, Facebook, or you can email us at podcast@daveberta.ca. Thanks for listening.

Recommended reading:
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Alberta Politics

Once upon a time Alberta MLAs had meaningful ideas about Senate Reform

The introduction of Bill 13, the Alberta Senate Election Act, this week inspired me to pull out an old copy of the Special Select Committee on Senate Reform report, Strengthening Canada, from March 1985. The committee, chaired by Calgary-Currie MLA Dennis Anderson, published a report that led to the creation of the original Senatorial Selection Act in 1989 and subsequent Senate nominee elections in 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012.

Dennis Andeson

The 1980s were heady times for constitutional debaters and Senate reform advocates in Canada. Dozens of reports from various governments, organizations, and think-tanks studied the idea of reforming Canada’s appointed Upper Chamber.

Unlike today, when the majority of Senators sit as Independents, decades of federal Liberal Party governments had led to the 1980s Senate being overflowing with Liberal partisan appointees.

A motion from Minister of Federal and Intergovernmental Affairs Jim Horsman on November 23, 1983 led to the creation of the committee, which included 7 MLAs from the Progressive Conservative caucus, including Anderson, Calgary-North West MLA Sheila Embury, Highwood MLA Harry Alger, Calgary-Egmont MLA David Carter, Lacombe MLA Ron Moore, Edmonton-Kingsway MLA Carl Paproski, and Innisfail MLA Nigel Pengelly, and Independent former Social Credit MLA Raymond Speaker. The group spent more than a year consulting and studying the issue in Alberta, Canada and abroad.

The motion to create the committee and the 1985 and 1987 motions to hold Senate elections had cross-partisan support – including from the PC, New Democratic Party and Liberals. This is a marked difference from today, where the NDP are advocates of Senate abolition, the Liberals have their banished Senators from their federal caucus, and Conservatives (at least when they are in government) have largely fallen back into supporting the current appointed Senate model.

An advertisement asking for feedback for the committee.

The committee report tabled in the Legislative Assembly in 1985 included a number of recommendations for reforming the Senate that are much more ambitious than anything being presented by Senate election advocates today.

Unlike the unimaginative Senate Election Act, which is a largely farcical exercise, the Special Select Committee on Senate Reform called for wide-ranging constitutional reforms that would reorganize and increase the democratic accountability of the Upper Chamber.

The 1985 report recommended Senators should be elected using a first-past-the-post system and that they should represent constituencies identical to provincial boundaries. Senators would be elected for the life of two provincial legislatures with staggered elections allowing for three to be elected during each provincial election, with each voter being able to vote for three candidates.

The number of Senators would have been dropped to 64 had the committee had its way, with six representing each province and two representing each territory. This would presumably fulfill the “equal” part of the call for a Triple-E Senate (the other Es being effective and elected).

The report also recommended that “the Senate should be organized on a different basis than any other Upper House in the Commonwealth,” including being organized without the recognition of political parties.

The report argued that “if the role of the Senate is to represent the regions (provinces) of the country, it must be structured to represent those regions’ interests rather than the interest of national political parties.” This is somewhat reflective of the current Senate, where the majority of members sit as Independents rather than members of political parties.

The report recommended that traditional opposition and government roles in the Senate be abolished, including the positions of Government Leader and Opposition Leader, and that Senators should physically be seated in provincial delegations regardless of any party allegiances. Each provincial delegation would select a chairman who would should sit at the pleasure of the provincial delegation and participate in a Senate Executive Council, which would, along with the Speaker, determine the order of business of the Senate.

The report also called for the qualifications for candidates to the Senate to be made the same as those for Members of Parliament, removing minimum 30 years old age requirement of and $4,000 property ownership requirement.

It also noted that “the Senate should not be a forum for inter-governmental negotiations.”

Now a quick look at Bill 13, the Senate Election Act

Doug Schweitzer Calgary Alberta Conservative
Doug Schweitzer

The Senate Election Act introduced by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer this week would allow the Senate nominee candidates to be chosen through an election but then, if the Prime Minister decides to appoint the winners, which he is not bound to do, they will be able to serve their time in the Senate until the age of 75 without ever having to face re-election.

The biggest flaw with this bill and Alberta’s previous Senate election laws is that there is no real accountability if these elected Senators never have to face re-election.

Bill 13 is being introduced to replace the Senatorial Selection Act, which expired on December 31, 2016. But the bill is largely an extension of United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney‘s campaign against Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of the October 2019 federal election.

The Act introduced this week would have Senate candidates nominated by provincial political parties or as Independent candidate, but list their federal political party affiliation next to their name on the ballot. This is a significant change from the previous Senate nominee elections when candidates were listed under provincial party banners. It is unclear whether the federal political parties will have any say about the candidates who align with them in a provincially-administered Senate election.

Kenney and Schweitzer announced that the next Senate election will take place during the October 17, 2021 municipal elections, which will also be the date of the promised “equalization referendum.” It has been speculated that these events are scheduled on this date in order to boost conservative voter turnout in the municipal elections and fulfill the Conservative Party’s long-time dream of defeating Naheed Nenshi and electing a capital-C conservative into the mayor’s office in Calgary.