UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 26: A family playing a game of Monopoly, c 1930. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

PHOTOS: A group of Albertans studies the effects of corporate cash on the conservative domination of North American politics. Actual Albertans may not appear exactly as illustrated. Regardless, Alberta’s NDP government may be about to try to fix this problem. Below: Parkland Institute charts showing the percentage of election campaign donations in 2012 over $375, which must be reported, and from small donors who gave less than $375; Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell.

There’s a buzz in the air here in the New Social Democratic West that our just-elected NDP government’s Bill 1 will impose a ban on corporate and union donations to provincial political parties and campaigns.

We’ll have a pretty good idea if this is true tomorrow, when Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell reads the Throne Speech.

This is the sort of thing that the remnants of the once mighty Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Opposition keen to inherit the PCs’ mantle may feel politically obligated to pretend to support, but which must make their blood run cold. After all, both conservative parties benefit enormously from corporate cash.

I mean, seriously people, if politics in Alberta been a a battle of ideas and not cash, parties espousing a neoliberal philosophy like the Tories and the Wildrose would have found themselves in deep trouble a long time ago.

The situation is much worse for the Tories, who back in 2012 raised 70 per cent of their reportable campaign donations from corporations and unions, and only a only a tiny portion of that from unions. That statistic comes from a fact sheet released Friday by the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta, which noted that 2012 was the last year for which figures were available when it crunched the numbers. Under Elections Alberta’s rules, donations larger than $375 must be publicly reported with the name of the donor.

By comparison, the Wildrose Party raised just under 40 per cent of its reportable donations from corporations, none from unions. The NDP raised roughly the same percentage from corporate and union sources, with about 15 per cent of that total coming from corporations.

It’s hard to imagine that corporate donations will continue to flow to the Tories at the same rate they used to now that the party has been reduced to third-party status in the Legislature. To make matters worse for the Tories, unlike the New Democrats and the Wildrosers, the post-Jim-Prentice PCs have virtually no capacity to fund-raise from individual donors.

Both the NDP and the Wildorsers raised just over half of their total 2012 donations from individuals who gave less that $375. The Tories raised less than 4 per cent of their total from such contributors!

Since there are significant differences between traditional PC supporters and those of the Wildrose Party, there are reasons the PCs could hope to survive as a party. They were for many years, and may remain to a degree, a big-tent party that unlike the Wildrose had to moderate the extreme market fundamentalism of the modern Republican-influenced North American right.

To survive, the PCs will need to develop a capacity for soliciting and collecting small donations if the New Democrat majority in the Legislature indeed passes a ban on corporate and union donations. That will cost money they don’t have right now, with the party at least $1 million in debt.

While the putative NDP plan is clearly the right thing to do from an ethical perspective, there is not much question it also is likely to benefit the governing party’s political position.

As the figures cited by the Parkland Institute partly indicate, rivers of corporate cash provided a significant unfair advantage to the PCs come election time, and they help the Wildrose Party disproportionately too.

Obviously, there’s more to this story than just percentages. Not only did the PCs raise a much higher percentage of money from corporate sources – so high they grew lazy about soliciting donations from and building relationships with individual voters – but thanks to their corporate donors’ deep pockets, they were able to bring in far more of the stuff. The Wildrose Party could too.

The Elections Alberta figures for 2012 are very telling. When you add up the totals raised in the campaign period and non-campaign donations for the entire year, separate reporting columns under Elections Alberta’s rules, they were as follows:

  • PCs – $7.6 million
  • Wildrose – $5.9 million
  • NDP – $1.9 million
  • Alberta Liberals – $600,000

This is a better guide to just how overwhelming the corporate advantage was in raw fund-raising power in an election year before the remarkable – perhaps, given all that cash, miraculous – victory of Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP on May 5 2015.

Numbers like these should put an end to the developing meme in right wing circles that – yikes! – New Democrats won the May 5 provincial election because of union donations.

Not likely. The New Democrats won because Albertans had had it up to here with Tory entitlement and arrogance, and they didn’t trust the far-right nostrums of the Wildrose Party. Nor was the electorate’s decision an accident – we’d all seen the polls, even if we had some doubts they had it completely right, so voters knew there was a significant chance they were truly voting for an NDP government, not just lodging a protest.

As the Parkland fact sheet illustrates, Alberta’s huge Wild West spending limits also aided conservative political parties that toe the corporate line.

Under the present law, Alberta citizens and corporations can contribute $15,000 to a political party in any calendar year, $30,000 during an election year less any amount contributed to the same party in the same year. The can also donate an additional $10,000 to political candidates, as well as $5,000 to constituency associations during non-election years.

This, in addition to conveniently lax interpretation of the rules by Elections Alberta, made possible the notorious $430,000 “bulk donation” to the Tories by drugstore and hockey billionaire Daryl Katz and his friends, employees and relations, which helped bail out Alison Redford in 2012.

Obviously, the kind of individual donors who support parties like the NDP don’t have that kind of cash to fork over.

“The concept of ‘pay to play,’ where corporations and the wealthy make sizeable political donations with the expectation of securing regulatory or policy outcomes that will benefit their interests, is well-established in the literature on party and campaign finance,” the author of Friday’s Parkland report observed.

“Although it can be difficult to draw a direct line from any one donation or contributor to any one policy or regulatory outcome, Albertans could be forgiven for assuming that the tens of thousands of dollars donated annually by wealthy oil and gas corporations and executives over the years had some impact on the PC government’s historic reluctance to regulate the industry or increase royalties,” the report stated.

Even with a ban on corporate and union donations in place – and even with the additional spending limits and third-party spending rules proposed by the Parkland paper – right wing parties will continue to enjoy a significant advantage. They will be helped by mass media corporations, heavily publicized bogus studies from right-wing “think tanks,” and the whole massive agitation and propaganda infrastructure developed by the ideological right and bankrolled  by the corporate sector over the past 40 years.

Nevertheless, as Parkland Research Manager Barret Weber observed, “there’s no question that passing legislation which limits political party support to individual Albertans would make a huge difference in addressing the corrosive influence of big money in Alberta politics.”

So let’s get on with it!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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  1. Largely agree, but a couple of comments if I may. Firstly, you didn’t comment on the fact that when it comes to the proportion of contributions coming from corporations &/or unions, the Liberals narrowly outstripped even the PCs, which challenges their characterization as “progressive” by many pundits & bloggers.

    Secondly, I read a comment recently (can’t remember where) that suggested that based on what we’ve seen at the federal level, banning corporate & union donations is not the way to the Promised Land. The HarperCons’ use of confrontational wedge politics as a fundraising tool, and their need to cater to their base to keep supporters’ dollars flowing in, has abased the level of political discourse in Ottawa even more than what it had been before.

    This does not mean it still should not be done, just that this is not the be all and end all in our democracy.

  2. re: ‘They will be helped by mass media corporations, heavily publicized bogus studies from right-wing “think tanks,” and the whole massive agitation and propaganda infrastructure developed by the ideological right and bankrolled by the corporate sector over the past 40 years.’

    Donald Gutstein has written a detailed but brief historical treatment of this in his recent book Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada.

    Links below. Worth a read.

    This concerted propaganda effort helped legitimize PCAA + BigOil corporatism since Klein took over, and seem normal. As opposed to a marginalization of democratic control of the province’s natural resource wealth.

    It created the political culture/conventional wisdom that enabled the Liberals under
    Chretien/Martin to move way over to the cut-and-slash right in their efforts to respond to the political impact of the Reform(the original Canadian Tea Party).

    And made the WRP ideological attacks on government sound sensible to some.




    excerpt: As of this writing in mid-2014, a tightly knit, smoothly operating neoliberal propaganda system has been installed in Canada. The foundations of wealthy businessmen, corporations and individuals are investing more than $26 million a year in neoliberal think-tanks and single-issue advocacy organizations. (This figure doesn’t include Calgary’s School of Public Policy, whose financial statements are buried within the university’s accounts.) The long-term goal is to discredit government as a vital institution and to champion market alternatives.

    The system hinges on the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, James Buchanan, and other members of the MPS that provide neoliberal doctrine. Think-tanks transform the doctrine into research; sympathetic academics provide research studies compatible with the think-tank’s goals; corporate executives and the foundations of wealthy businessmen finance the research; and sympathetic media owners and commentators disseminate the research to target audiences.’

  3. It is undemocratic and downright communist to ban corporate and union donations in a free society.

  4. It won’t happen with ANY Party. Once in they get millions in donations to buy govt… donations from big Corps, unions, big pharam and no Party will ever say no to that… if the NDP says they will do it they LIE

  5. I am committed to donating $10 000 to the WRP before next election, and I am a simple Janitor. (with no benifits) Sometimes I become discouraged, but in the end I stand behind the only viable party that largely respects me as an individual. All I ask for in life is to be left alone, and have no interest in trying to claim other people’s wealth. I know I do not matter to people on the ‘left’ because I am not a Public sector worker, nor do I want to be babysat.

    However I do know that the NDP wIll be glad to take more of my hard earned money, and funnel it into the Public sector, even if I do not have the same kind of job security. I am also aware that the Unions will run a parallel campaign with the NDP, so the NDP don’t care about banning Union donations.

    I don’t think the ‘left’ will ever understand people such as myself. I just don’t think in terms of relying on the government. I try to make do with what I have, and even give a small donation to others once in awhile. My hard earned money is taken away from me, but it is never enough for politicians. We are never thanked. Just treated as selfish if we happen to complain . Tax freedom day in Alberta was in early May. Something tells me, that they
    would not be satisfied if Tax Freedom day was in September.

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