As Alberta MLAs debate the merits of limiting spending in election campaigns, introducing a reimbursement system and lowering the amount individuals can donate to political parties, let us cast our attention back to 1972 when rookie New Democratic Party MLA Grant Notley, the father of current Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, proposed similar changes.
Mr. Notley’s first private members’ bill, An Act to Amend the Elections Act, proposed the creation of spending limits and the disclosure of financial contributions to candidates and political parties, which was not required at the time. The bill proposed to limit campaign spending to “25 cents per elector in the aggregate” or “$2,000 in anyone electoral division.” According to the Bank of Canada online inflation calculator, $2,000 in 1972 would be the equivalent of $11,898.62 in 2016.
“The first major principle in the bill is the concept that election expenses should be limited. It is my submission, Mr. Speaker, that it is important in a democratic society that all political points of view should have, as much as possible, equal access to public opinion,” Mr. Notley said when introducing Bill 202 for second reading in the Legislative Assembly. “The lack of control over the expenditures in an election campaign can lead to a great inequality in the right of political organizations to make their case before the people of the province or the country.”
“Mr. Speaker, one of the principal reasons for limiting election expenses is that, in my view, it would force political parties to move away from what I claim to be an over-dependence on the public media and to get back to the kind of participatory campaigning which to me is basic to the whole democratic process,” Mr. Notley argued.
The bill faced stiff opposition from some of his conservative colleagues in the Assembly.
Bill Purdy, the Progressive Conservative MLA for Stony Plain, warned that “…if we regulate campaign spending we are getting away from the democratic system” and Edmonton-Jasper Place PC MLA Les Young argued that “…the amount of money suggested in this particular bill, is in my opinion, quite inadequate. It is not a great deal more than I spent in my own personal campaign, but nevertheless, it would be quite inadequate if applied on a provincial basis.”
And cabinet minister Julian Koziak, the PC MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona, argued that “that if the gentleman will recall the election expenses that were advertised especially for the constituencies of Edmonton Glenora and Edmonton Whitemud by the Social Credit candidates, one can verily see that the amount spent has no bearing on the results of the election.”
Drumheller Social Credit MLA Gordon Taylor, who would later join the PC Caucus, spoke in support of Mr. Notley’s bill:
“I would like to support Bill No. 202 in principle. When I say that I can’t say I could subscribe to everything in the bill from clause to clause. But I think the principle of limiting to some degree election expenses is very sound. If each candidate from every status of life is going to have a reasonably equal chance to present his platform to the electorate then there has to be some limitation on the amount of money. Because otherwise we’re making things very unequal.
The labouring man can’t find huge sums of money with which to fight an election campaign, compared to a man who happens to be wealthy — and instead of saying a ‘labouring man’ let’s say a ‘poor man’, whatever category he happens to be in. He might be a doctor or lawyer, too, some of them are poor, maybe not very many but a few of them are poor also. But a poor man cannot find the same kind of money — large sums of money — to fight an election campaign from his own resources compared to a wealthy man.
When it comes to contributions from other people the poor man may have a wider scope and may be able to secure more money than a wealthy man, but it is questionable whether he could secure sufficient money to equal that of a wealthy man who is determined to be elected by the amount of money he has.”
But perhaps the most colourful and poetic commentary during the 1972 debate came from Charles Drain, the Social Credit MLA for Pincher Creek-Crowsnest:
“…looking at it as a history of democracy and a tree of democracy and how it has grown from the time of Athens and the time of ancient Rome and even to the time of the Magna Carta, when the voting and the processes of democracy, and the right of he who could hold office was predetermined by the prerogatives of birth, and in later time by religion and ancestry, and watching the progress that we have now made.
Truly, Mr. Speaker, the tree of democracy has managed to flourish despite the fact that it has been bent by many winds, many winds that have been retrogressive. But in spite of all this, we evolved onward and prosperously further along the road to what true democracy should mean to all of us. The right of people to predetermine the management of their affairs.”
So as history evolves, we can look at the history of early elections in Canada and the politician who bought the greatest amount of whiskey won the election, and this is history because I know where of I speak. I have talked to old timers who have managed to drink vast quantities of liquor for one party and then vote for the other; which is proper democratic justice.”
Bill 202 was debated in the Legislature but does not appear to have made it further than second reading. Mr. Notley would go on to introduce private members’ bills in 1974, 1977 and 1979 that also proposed amending the Elections Act to limit campaign spending by candidates and political parties in Alberta elections.