In Bill 32, NDP’s latest tweaks to Alberta election financing laws, Notley Government takes aim at PACs

Posted on December 05, 2017, 1:20 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: Democratic Renewal (and Labour) Minister Christina Gray. Below: Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan and Alberta Party MLA Greg Clark.

The most controversial omission in new Alberta legislation restricting the activities of so-called political action committees released yesterday afternoon by the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley will likely be the fact Bill 32 does not propose to ban donations to PACs by corporations and unions.

That was certainly the complaint loudly made by the Alberta Liberals, who had introduced a private member’s bill on the same topic that did contain such a ban, and it seemed to be the tack taken by the analysis in mainstream media stories like those filed by the CBC and Postmedia.

Critics will probably assign dark motives to the NDP’s decision to allow corporations, unions and people outside the province to continue to make donations to Alberta PACs.

Still, Democratic Renewal Minister Christina Gray’s defence of that omission may well hold water. Yesterday, she argued such limits in An Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta would probably have violated protections of freedom of expression and association guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One of the responsibilities of government is to bring forward legislation that stands a chance of surviving the inevitable court challenges it will face, and one of the luxuries of being a small opposition party like the Alberta Liberals is that it’s generally safe to ignore such realities.

So Liberal Leader David Khan’s claim the private member’s bill put forward by the sole Liberal MLA, David Swann, “is a better bill and will do a better job of getting dark money out of politics” might be true in the best of all possible worlds, but that is not the one we inhabit. The world Alberta’s laws must confront contains constitutionally guaranteed freedoms that have long been extended to corporations as if they were natural persons, and more recently unions as well.

Critics also complained Bill 32 does not contain a legal definition of PACs. A government spokesperson told me yesterday that was done quite intentionally, because of the way the province’s Conservatives moved swiftly into U.S.-style PACs when the NDP outlawed corporate and union donations to political parties. “As soon as you define PACs, they’re going to pivot and find a way to change and not meet the definition of a PAC,” he said.

Better, therefore, to define prohibited activities than the entities that might commit them, he argued.

Regardless of whether you agree or not that the more restrictive version of the bill could withstand a Charter challenge, that’s going to be the government’s story, and they’re going to stick to it. They will almost certainly try to have Bill 32 passed by the end of the week, when the Legislature takes its annual holiday break.

Notwithstanding the critics’ complaints, Bill 32 combined with previous legislation passed by the NDP in 2016 may not get what Mr. Khan calls the “dark money” out of politics, but it will expose it to enough illumination that it can hardly be called dark any more.

As Ms. Gray put it in the government’s press release: “Albertans deserve to know who is trying to influence their elections. Over the past year, we’ve seen a significant rise in the number of third parties who are trying to bring dark money into Alberta politics. … Shining a light on this dark money will help ensure Albertans decide for themselves.”

An overview of the bill’s changes to the Election Act published by the government yesterday shows the bill will:

  • Place strict spending limits on third parties such as PACs of $150,000 on political advertising before an election is called
  • Limit to $3,000 money may be used to promote or oppose the election of one or more candidates in any single electoral division
  • Consider as advertising money spent on canvassing, hall rentals and the like to promote or oppose a party or candidate
  • Ban collusion among third parties, political parties, leadership candidates, PACs and the like to circumvent spending limits
  • Deny third parties the right to sell party memberships or collect voter information in support of a party, candidate, nomination candidate or leadership candidate
  • Specifically ban corporations, unions and people not resident in Alberta from such activities
  • Place limits on government advertising during by-election and election periods – changes that may have been inspired by a Wildrose Party MLA’s 2015 private member’s bill

Unanswered is the question of how the stiffer penalties set out in the bill would be applied after an election to an Opposition party that broke the rules and won.

Alberta Party extends candidate-free leadership race by nearly 3 weeks

If you’re one of those NDP supporters who happens to think a strong showing in Calgary by the now-sort-of-leaderless Alberta Party is an essential component to any hope the NDP can survive in the 2019 general election as government, you’ll probably be relieved by the Alberta Party announcement yesterday it was extending its leadership race by 20 days.

This seems prudent, seeing no candidate has yet come forward to lead the party.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark stepped aside suddenly on Nov. 10. He was apparently given a helpful shove from some refugees from the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party who joined the Alberta Party after the creation of the United Conservative Party.

Any such speculation about the likely outcome of the 2019 election, of course, assumes that in 2019 a healthy and competently led Alberta Party will bleed off more Conservatives disgruntled with the cynical and scary social conservative UCP leadership of Jason Kenney than it will steal progressive votes from the NDP.

7 Comments to: In Bill 32, NDP’s latest tweaks to Alberta election financing laws, Notley Government takes aim at PACs

  1. anon

    December 5th, 2017

    Is Ms. Gray planning to enforce the US Supreme Court decision which gave corporations the right to purchase elections? Has she been “Trumped?” Or would that be “Koched?” All I can say is Albertans will be “Bushed” if this is not fixed.

    Reply
  2. J.E. Molnar

    December 5th, 2017

    Bill 32 may not be perfect and solve all the inherent problems of dark money, but it’s far better than the law that currently exists — which is nothing. Sound like the Liberals went a little extreme in their version of a similarly crafted bill, ignoring the rule of law under the Charter.

    The fact that there are no provisions outside of election years is worrisome. Campaigns designed to promote particular causes (provincial sales tax, Right to Work legislation, Recall legislation etc.) would not be subject to any scrutiny.

    The fact that a full time ombudsman or commissioner will be appointed also ensures someone will be keeping track of any attempts to abuse or skirt the legislation. Amendments can always be added at a later date if online PACs prove to be problematic. Overall — a good start!!

    Reply
  3. December 5th, 2017

    I wasn’t all that impressed with the text of 214 anyway. it was vague — you could drive a truck through it — I don’t think it would have disrupted the operations of today’s PACs much, if at all. 32 appears more comprehensive.

    Reply
  4. brett

    December 5th, 2017

    This is a very good step and I applaud the Government for moving forward with it. You only have to look south to the US political scene to realize how important this is to our democracy.

    Reply
  5. Dan

    December 5th, 2017

    Basically we are calling them( Legal Terminology) #527’s out of the US unregulated Political PAC’s outlawing third party super-PAC’s @ Election Time. Sounds Like #Wildrose has a problem with UFA $$$ @ Election Time. And UCP can no longer Depend on the Federal Conservative Party of Canada @ Election Time .

    Reply
  6. David

    December 5th, 2017

    Hopefully the proposed changes will rein in PAC’s sufficiently. I think disclosure requirements for all are a very important part of things, so we can see who is funding what and the “dark” money will have to be exposed to the light.

    I suspect there is some merit to the charter arguments. You can not take away the right to free speech, but you can impose reasonable conditions on it. I am not sure whether not defining a PAC is helpful or not. It is really a US term we have imported to aid us to discuss this particular issue, I doubt it has the same legal status in Canada. I suppose if we wanted to be more precise, we would call them non-party political participant organizations or something like that, but that doesn’t sound very clear and certainly does not lend itself to an acronym we could easily understand either.

    The main thing is to keep political funding from turning into the wild west. We can debate various tactics at this point, but ultimately the legislation will be judged by how successful it is in doing that over the next few years.

    Reply
  7. brett

    December 7th, 2017

    I don’t think Jason will like it. It must be good.

    Reply

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