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Alberta Politics

UCP backbenchers revolt against mild public health restrictions as COVID third wave hits Alberta

New cases of COVID-19 are on the rise and the third wave of the global pandemic is hitting Alberta, but that did not deter a group of nearly 20 United Conservative Party MLAs from publicly speaking out against the provincial government’s implementation of mild public health restrictions in response.

Like the virus, the group of COVID critics inside the UCP Caucus has grown exponentially from the original six-pack of MLAs who publicly spoke out against public health measures at the beginning of March. The public letter signed by 15 UCP MLAs criticized Premier Jason Kenney for moving back to Step 1 of the province’s mild public health measures in response to the spike in new cases, which is largely a result of a vicious new variant of the deadly virus.

The group of 15 includes Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills MLA Nathan Cooper, who made an unusual move for a Speaker of the Assembly to publicly criticize the government, and already open COVID critics Drew Barnes and Angela Pitt, who recently split from the national End the Lockdown Caucus after Ontario MPP Randy Hillier posted a social media meme comparing public health restrictions to the Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The UCP group also includes Tracy Allard, whose Christmas vacation to Hawaii cost her her job of Municipal Affairs Minister.

The letter signed by the 15 MLAs was soon after endorsed by Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright MLA Garth Rowswell and West Yellowhead MLA Martin Long, who also serves as the parliamentary secretary for small business. Also signalling support for the letter’s intentions was Calgary Member of Parliament Michelle Rempel-Garner, who serves as the Official Opposition Health Critic in Ottawa.

Peace River MLA Dan Williams, a long-time Kenney acolyte from Ottawa, did not endorse the letter but posted a video on social media criticizing the decision by Alberta Health Services to close down the rebel GraceLife Church, which had been holding in-person services in defiance of the government’s public health orders. He was joined in this call by Ontario MP Derek Sloan, who was kicked out of the federal Conservative caucus for his extreme social conservative views.

Active COVID-19 cases in Alberta (chart from @CBCFletch on Twitter)
Active COVID-19 cases in Alberta (chart from @CBCFletch on Twitter)

That the leaders of the UCP caucus mutiny appear to largely be from the former Wildrose caucus, or Wildrose-wing of the party, is not surprising. The former opposition party was notoriously raucous and unwilling to bow to the kind of centralized party leadership that Kenney would have become accustomed to during his many years in Ottawa.

It was also clear during Kenney’s press conference on Tuesday that he expected a negative reaction from his caucus. A significant portion of Kenney’s lecture was dedicated to managing MLAs expectations and acknowledging the differences of opinion in his caucus. Difference of opinion is one thing, but this is something entirely different.

The public health restrictions that Alberta fell back to earlier this week are nothing close to what restrictions have looked like in jurisdictions that have actually implemented lockdowns. Alberta schools are still open for in-person classes, and Albertans can still gather with up to 10 people outside, go shopping for non-essential items, get a haircut or a massage, dine or have drinks on a restaurant patio, and exercise at a gym with a personal trainer.

Jason Kenney
Premier Jason Kenney on April 6, 2021.

There is no doubt a lot of Albertans are frustrated about how the provincial government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Kenney government has not helped itself by releasing a string of confusing and inconsistent public health measures and messaging to Albertans about the government’s response.

While public opinion polling suggests many Albertans would like the government to impose stronger measures to stop the spread of the deadly virus, there is a loud minority who want to see the current restrictions lifted.

It is yet to be seen whether the revolt will extend beyond this strongly worded letter, but there is little doubt these MLAs are actively undermining the work being done by public health professionals and health care workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The caucus revolt is probably a reflection of deepening regional and partisan divides in Alberta, with most of the COVID Caucus MLAs representing largely rural and small town districts. It is notable that no UCP MLAs from Calgary, so far the hardest hit in the third wave, have publicly joined the revolt.

It also suggests that the United Conservative Party is not as united as its leader would like Albertans to believe.

Kenney’s personal approval ratings and support for his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic plummeted over the past 13 months, and his party has floundered in the polls, finishing behind Rachel Notley’s NDP in a handful of recent voter opinion polls. The rise of the separatist Wildrose Independence Party in rural Alberta has some backbench UCP MLAs nervously looking over their right shoulders.

In some ways, the revolt probably serves as a welcome distraction to some in the UCP from the never ending string of scandals and policy failures, most recently the failure to stop the Carbon Tax at the Supreme Court, the loss of $1.5 billion of public money when the Keystone XL Pipeline was cancelled, the failure to sign a new contract with Alberta doctors, the retreat on open-pit coal mining, and the open rebellion by parents against the draft K-6 curriculum.

Under normal circumstances it would be hard to believe that this kind of caucus revolt would happen on a day when more than 1,300 new cases of COVID were reported and doctors are calling for a circuit breaker response, but in today’s world of Alberta politics, it would be harder to believe this would happen if the UCP were not floundering so deeply in the polls.

The original 15 UCP MLAs who signed the letter

  • Tracy Allard, MLA Grande Prairie
  • Drew Barnes, MLA Cypress-Medicine Hat
  • Nathan Cooper, MLA Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills
  • Michaela Glasgo, MLA Brooks-Medicine Hat
  • Dave Hanson, MLA Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul
  • Nate Horner, MLA Drumheller-Stettler
  • Todd Loewen, MLA Central Peace-Notley
  • Ron Orr, MLA Lacombe-Ponoka
  • Angela Pitt, MLA Airdrie-East
  • Roger Reid, MLA Livingstone-Macleod
  • Miranda Rosin, MLA Banff-Kananaskis
  • RJ Sigurdson, MLA Highwood
  • Mark Smith, Drayton Valley-Devon
  • Jason Stephan, Red Deer-South
  • Glenn van Dijken, Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock
Categories
Alberta Politics

How much Alberta’s political parties spent in the 2019 election

Elections Alberta has released the initial financial disclosures showing how much money Alberta’s political parties spent and raised during the 2019 provincial general election campaign period spanning from February 1, 2019 to June 16, 2019.

This was the first election under the new election finance rules implemented by the New Democratic Party during their term in government. The NDP made a number of significant changes to how Alberta’s elections were financed, including banning donations to political parties by corporations and unions, and introducing a spending limit of $2,000,000 for political parties and $50,000 for candidate campaigns, but at the financial returns show, what the spending limits apply to are limited.

The $2,000,000 and $50,000 spending limits only apply to the actual 28-day election period from the time the election is called until Election Day. So the limit does not apply to the broader campaign period, which according to Section 38.1(2) of the Election Act, begins on February 1 in the year of the fixed-election date and ends ends 2 months after Election Day.

The Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act also creates exceptions to the spending limit on expenses categorized as “election expenses.” The expense limit during the 28-day election period does not apply to a candidate’s travel expenses related to the election, including meals and accommodation, a candidate’s child care expenses, expenses related to the provision of care for a person with a physical or mental incapacity for who the candidate normally provides such care, etc.

What the parties spent

Initial Financial Disclosures from Alberta's provincial political parties from the 2019 general election. The Alberta Advantage Party and Freedom Conservative Party returns have not been posted online (source: Elections Alberta)
Initial Financial Disclosures from Alberta’s provincial political parties from the 2019 general election. The Alberta Advantage Party and Freedom Conservative Party returns have not been posted online (source: Elections Alberta)

The United Conservative Party spent $4,561,362.10 while raising $3,889,582.70 during the campaign period, ending the campaign with a deficit of $671,779.40.

$1,909,116.43 of the UCP’s expenses were spent on items that fall under the provincial limit, including $1,202,965.43 spent on advertising, posters, pamphlets and promotional materials. $2,619,471.83 was spent on expenses that was exempt from the spending limit.

The NDP spent $5,363,029.30 and raised $3,706,785.66, ending the campaign with a deficit of $1,656,043.64.

Of the NDP’s campaign expenses, $1,977,367.65 were spent on items that fall under the provincial limit, including $1,363,029.74 for advertising, posters, pamphlets and promotional material. $2,200,131.09 was spent on expenses that was exempt from the spending limit.

The Alberta Party raised $206,597 and spent $199,935 during the campaign period. $118,960 of the Alberta Party’s expenses fell under the provincial limit rules, including $21,932 spent on advertising, posters, pamphlets and promotional. Of the party’s total expenses, $74,975 was exempt from the limit.

The Alberta Liberal Party raised $101,233 and spent $130,063, ending the campaign with a deficit of $28,830. The Green Party raised $14,894.40 and spent $41,702.22, earning a deficit of $26,807.82.

Some candidates spent a lot during the campaign period

The campaigns of a number of UCP candidates spent considerable amount during the course of the broader campaign period. Here is a snapshot of some of the higher candidate campaign expenses:

  • Doug Schweitzer, UCP candidate in Calgary-Elbow: spent $309,597.22, of which $268,166.23 did not fall under the spending limit.
  • Tyler Shandro, UCP candidate in Calgary-Acadia: spent $122,170.91, with $77,463.88 not falling under the spending limit.
  • Kaycee Madu, UCP candidate in Edmonton-South West: spent $101,098, with $55,527 exempt from the spending limit.
  • Dan Williams, UCP candidate in Peace River: spent $92,268, with $52,750 exempt from the spending limit.
  • Jason Luan, UCP candidate in Calgary-Foothills: spent $92,268, with $52,750 exempt from the spending limit.

No NDP candidate candidate campaign spent anywhere near the amount of the big spenders on the UCP slate, but a number of candidates did exceed the $50,000 limit:

  • Rachel Notley, running for re-election in Edmonton-Strathcona: spent $73,297, with $39,798 exempt from the spending limit.
  • Christina Gray, NDP candidate in Edmonton-Mill Woods: spent $73,576, with $27,742 exempt from the spending limit.
  • Lorne Dach, NDP candidate in Edmonton-McClung: spent $64,282, with $27,396 exempt from the spending limit.

And the campaign of Caylan Ford, the UCP star candidate in Calgary-Mountain View who withdrew from the election before the nomination deadline, was recorded to have spent $83,100,50 during the campaign period that began on February 1, 2019, with $32,676.94 of these expenses being exempt from the spending limit.

Chief Elections Officer recommends changes

Glen Resler Chief Elections Officer Alberta
Glen Resler (Source: Elections Alberta)

Chief Elections Officer Glen Resler recommended in his office’s recently released annual report that the spending limits be placed on the entire campaign period, rather than just the election period. He argued in the report that this change would “reduce the administrative burden and provide clarity for Chief Financial Officers of parties, constituency associations and candidates with respect to apportioning expenses between election and campaign periods.

Resler recommended that Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act and the Election Act be “combined into one coherent statute to make the legislation more accessible to participants and electors and provide a much-needed opportunity to renumber the legislation.” Currently, eight other provinces and territories have one piece of legislation governing provincial elections.

The report also recommends that political entities be expressly prohibited from contributing to third party advertisers, which seems to be a reaction to the decision by the now defunct Wildrose Party association in Airdrie to donate $16,000 to a political action committee.

CBC reports that the UCP government is expected to make major changes to Alberta’s election finance laws in the spring 2020 session of the Legislature. It is suspected that some changes could removing the limits of third-party advertisers to spend funds during the election and campaign periods, and raising the amount that individuals can donate to political parties. Changes are also expected to include moves to limit the ability of unions to fund third-party groups and to advocate for their members on political and policy issues.