Alberta Politics

Notley’s NDP should ban corporate and union donations in municipal elections

One of the main promises made by the NDP before their win in the May 2015 provincial election was a commitment to ban corporate and union donations in provincial politics.

Current campaign finance laws allow individuals, corporations and labour unions to donate a maximum of $15,000 per year to a provincial political party in a non-election period and a maximum of $30,000 during an election period. The previous governing party, the Progressive Conservatives, relied heavily on corporate donations to fill their coffers but the new governing New Democratic Party and official opposition Wildrose Party have cultivated large individual donor bases that contribute smaller donations so they do not rely on larger donations.

The NDP should not limit the ban on corporate and union donations to the provincial level, they should also ban corporate and union donations in municipal elections. The provincial legislature approves the law that governs municipal election financing, which allows corporate, union and individual donations up to $5,000 during an election year. The provincial law also allows for an odd exemption that individual municipal candidates can contribute a maximum of $10,000 to their own campaign.

Research compiled by the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues in June 2014 found that in Edmonton’s recent municipal elections: (1) the most successful fundraiser was the victorious candidate in 100% of ward races; (2) successful candidates raised an average of three times more money than the second place candidate in their respective race, and four times more than all other candidates combined; and (3) on average, successful candidates received more than five times the number of donations be- tween $101 and $4,999 than other candidates, and close to triple the number of $5,000 donations (the maximum contribution).

‘The EFCL is concerned that some of our most dedicated and qualified potential public servants are getting priced out of office. It is also concerned about council members being placed in difficult situations, when the majority of the donations are coming from companies and unions that have a direct interest in decisions made by city council.’ – EFCL

Along with eliminating corporate and union donations, the NDP should also impose a cap on the total amount a candidate or campaign can spend during a campaign. While there are currently no rules, in 2010, Calgary mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi pledged to cap his campaign’s spending at $0.65 per resident.

The EFCL also wrote in their report that municipal candidates elected to Edmonton’s 12 councillor positions raised more than $80,000 on average in 2013, including three who raised more than $100,000 and two who raised less than $50,000. The most successful fundraiser was the victorious candidate in 100% of the ward races and successful candidates generally raised three times more money than the second place candidate. Many of these donations came from corporations and unions, including building developers who have a special interest in currying good relationships with municipal councillors.

In a recent op-ed in the Edmonton Journal, Public Interest Alberta‘s Larry Booi called on the new NDP government to institute campaign spending limits, lower contribution limits to $1,200 per year, impose much stronger rules on disclosure of contributions and spending and extend the rules on contributions and spending to cover party leadership and constituency contests. While Mr. Booi’s column focused on provincial campaign finance changes, there is no reason why they also cannot be extended to municipal election campaigns.

While the rules governing third-party campaigns in provincial elections are problematic, the provincial government needs to lay out fair rules governing financial disclosures and amounts that third-party campaigns and lobby groups can spend influencing voters in municipal elections. There are already plenty of examples of wealthy individuals attempting to advance their political agendas by supporting unaccountable lobby groups, as was the case with Calgary’s infamous Sprawl Cabal‘s plans to throw more than $1 million behind Preston Manning‘s “Municipal Governance Initiative,” and the anonymous donors behind the shady ‘St. Albert Think Tank.’

The province needs to create a formal enforcement and investigation mechanism to respond to complaints about potential breeches of the municipal campaign donation laws. In one case, both the City of St. Albert and the provincial government refused to verify the candidate financial disclosures or enforce them after complaints were made by members of the public.

“My role as returning officer is to receive the submissions that candidates provide … and to make them publicly available and that’s really the extent of our role in this process,” a St. Albert’s returning officer told the St. Albert Gazette in 2014. If the municipalities will not enforce the provincially-imposed laws, then the provincial government should create an organization that will.

Premier Rachel Notley and Alberta’s new NDP government have pledged to ban corporate and union donations in provincial politics, and they now have what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to clean up election finance laws in Alberta’s municipal elections as well.

Parkland report calls for political finance reform

The University of Alberta-based Parkland Institute released a new report this morning, Ending Pay to Play: The Need for Political Finance Reform in Alberta: “Given the consensus that exists between the government and official opposition to ban corporate and union donations, it should act immediately to do so. While this in itself would be a major victory for democracy, it is crucial that the government does not stop there, but rather works to fundamentally reform Alberta’s political culture in the public interest.”

Alberta Politics

Smear campaigns and anonymous groups dominate St. Albert election

Artwork from the anonymous St. Albert Insight blog.
Artwork from ‘St. Albert Insight’ attacks Mayor Nolan Crouse. St. Albert Insight is one of the many anonymous websites that have popped up during this month’s municipal election in St. Albert.

A rash of anonymous and semi-anonymous third-party groups have emerged with plans to influence the outcome in the City of St. Albert‘s municipal election.

With a population of more than 60,000, the second largest city in Alberta’s capital region has grown in leaps and bounds as the number of residents has increased by one-third over the past two decades. An affluent bedroom community without a significant business or industrial tax-base, St. Albert depends almost entirely on residential taxation to fill its city coffers.

Although it describes itself as a “grassroots group of concerned citizens”, ‘St. Albert Think-Tank‘ remains completely anonymous. Think-Tank opposes downtown revitalizations plans it claims will “change the St. Albert downtown core to resemble that of a major city such as Toronto or Montreal”, and opposes extension of Light-Rail Transit from Edmonton to St. Albert, flimsily arguing the city needs a population of 500,000 before an LRT line would be feasible.

Think-Tank plans to host an election forum on October 16, yet refuses to give election candidates any advanced notice as to the identity of the group’s leaders, membership or even the moderators at the planned all-candidates forum.

In an October 3rd email sent to Mayor Nolan Crouse and all council candidates, the group’s organizer declared that “the full membership list of the Think Tank is of no consequence,” and, despite continuing to remain completely anonymous, is “providing absolute openness and transparency.” (download a pdf copy of the email)

While the identity of the individual or individuals behind St. Albert Think-Tank remains a secret to the public, the group has purchased large advertisements in the community’s award winning newspaper, the St. Albert Gazette. The Gazette would know the names of the individuals who purchased the advertisement, yet the paper does not yet appear to have reported on the group’s agenda or who is hiding behind the advertisement.

More artwork from the anonymous St. Albert Insight blog attacking Mayor Nolan Crouse and council candidates its author disagrees with.
Artwork from the anonymous blog St. Albert Insight attacks Mayor Nolan Crouse and council candidates its author disagrees with.

Striking a real negative tone, two anonymous blogs – Stabnow and St. Albert Insight – have also been attacking the mayor and council candidates who do not fit within the authors narrow and bitterly toned anti-government agenda.

Another group, the Election Action Committee (EAC), remains semi-anonymous. The name of former St. Albert Taxpayers Association president Gord Henniger is listed as a contact and the group’s website appears to exists for the sole purpose of attacking incumbent Mayor Crouse.

The EAC has also purchased ads in the Gazette and loudly voices its opposition to taxes and various projects that any sensible person would think could improve the quality of life of St. Albertans, including LRT expansion and the proposed downtown area revitalization plan (the website also includes a strange daily recap of someone’s vacation in California).

In a recent ad in the St. Albert Gazette, the EAC claims that property taxes have increased by 26.37% since Mayor Crouse was first elected nine years ago. Whether or not that total is true, municipal taxes in St. Albert have only increased an average of 3.23% annually over the past five years. This remains fairly low compared to other cities in Alberta during the same period (4.62% in Red Deer, 4.53% in Strathcona County, 4.46% in Grande Prairie, 7.72% in Calgary and 5.63% in Edmonton).

Very poorly chosen "famous quotes" on the St. Albert Election Action Committee website.
Very poorly chosen “famous quotes” on the St. Albert Election Action Committee website.

But it is the “Famous Quotes” section of the Election Action Committee website that is most shocking. The page includes quotes from many historical luminaries, including Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, which I am sure will be of interest to the nine election candidates the EAC has endorsed.

While the two groups demand transparency from their municipal government, neither of these groups are transparent. I have emailed St. Albert Think-Tank and the Election Action Committee requesting information about their financial backers and who is involved in the groups. Neither have responded to my requests at the time this post was published.