Alberta Politics

A closer look at what the NDP platform said about ethics in government

After 44-years of one-party government, Alberta voters stampeded to the polls to remove the Progressive Conservatives from office in the May 5 election. The defining narrative of the election was accountability and trust in government and on this issue voters coalesced around Rachel Notley‘s New Democratic Party.

Now with the election over and the NDP transitioning into government, it is important to remember what the new governing party promised in before its historic victory. Here is what the NDP said on the topic of ethics and honesty in government in its 2015 election platform with my commentary below:

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

A policy supported by both the NDP and the Wildrose Party, this change can be expected to easily pass through the legislature. It is unknown whether the NDP will propose to lower contribution limits that individuals will be able to donate to political parties or change the current political contribution tax credit. The current annual maximum donation outside of an election period is $15,000 and during the election period is $30,000.

In Manitoba, where the NDP has governed since 1999, the maximum annual limit an individual can donate to a political party is $3,000.

(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.

This policy proposal was a reaction to an Auditor General Ethics Commissioner report in January 2015 that accused Education Minister Gordon Dirks of using his office for political gain while he was running as a PC candidate in the Calgary-Elbow by-election. The report accused Mr. Dirks of authorizing the construction of modular classrooms for a school in his constituency before the by-election was held.

(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 issue of MLA conflict of interest and lobbying has been an ongoing issue in Alberta politics in recent years. I could write an entire post about the Conflict of Interests Act, which I may do soon.

(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.

See my comment on (2.2) above.

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

The current “sunshine list” of government salaries applies only to employees of the public service. In January 2015, the PC Government backed away from its plans to include agencies, boards and commissions, claiming that it could not force these arms-length entities from disclosing employee salaries. The NDP campaign promise did not specify whether post-secondary institutions would be included.

(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 proposal is a response to the blatant interference by Premier Jim Prentice in legislative committee business earlier this year which led to PC MLAs reversing their decision to not cut funding for the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate. PC MLAs also voted to cut funding for the Office of the Auditor General.

Like the perennial promise of free-votes made by opposition parties, this proposal is problematic. In our current parliamentary system, the executive branch can be expected to exert a certain amount of influence on the legislative branch of government, and this extends to committee work. The challenge is to limit that influence so that the legislative branch can be effective and not just a rubber stamp for the Premier’s Office.