PHOTOS: Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan, who is worried about the activities of the province’s Political Action Committees. Former premier Ed Stelmach is visible behind him. Below: Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney, whose party’s activities are supported by PACs, and a United Farmers of Alberta gas station in Lacombe, grabbed from the UFA Archives online.

It’s hard to fault Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan for his call on the provincial government to quickly do something to control the burgeoning use in this province of U.S.-style “Political Action Committees” to get around the province’s election spending laws.

Mr. Khan, chosen as leader of the Alberta Liberals earlier this month, hit the ball out of the park publicity-wise last week with a news release demanding Alberta’s NDP Government “introduce strict regulations for political action committees to stop unscrupulous fund-raising.” He pointed, specifically, to PACs run for Jason Kenney, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, and by former PC Party president Katherine O’Neill, who for the moment is a leader of the Disaffected Progressive Conservative Not-Quite-a-Party.

“We need bold action to reduce the impact of big money on Alberta politics,” Mr. Khan stated in the news release, striking a chord with a lot of voters, including many who support the province’s NDP Government. “Unregulated third-party fund-raising and spending are corrupting the democratic process,” he added, speaking an obvious and unvarnished truth.

This turned out to generate loads of positive publicity for the Alberta Liberals, more than a political observer might have expected for a party with no recent history in government, an unelected novice leader and only one MLA in the Legislature, who is about to retire.

The fundamental reason for this is probably that a lot of people sense Mr. Khan is right, and something has gone seriously wrong with the use of PACs, in particular by conservative groups, but inevitably by others as well, to get around a well-intentioned law seen as necessary by most Albertans. I suppose it doesn’t hurt either that he passingly resembles movie actor George Clooney.

A significant part of the problem the Liberal Leader identified is the arrival in Canada of another pernicious American political innovation – the permanent campaign state.

Nationwide and in each province, the political system is now in campaign mode, 365 days a year, year after year. This was encouraged by the Harper Government during its long and dreary rule in Ottawa, and it’s a particular problem in NDP Alberta, where so many embittered Harperistas have retreated to plot their return to national power.

As a result, election financing reforms like those passed by Ed Stelmach’s PC government and Rachel Notley’s New Democrats that restrict most forms of election-spending regulation to the period between the drop of the writ and election day are quaint at best and potentially dangerously ineffective.

It’s not that Alberta is the “Wild West” of election financing, as a National Post columnist argued yesterday in a tribute to Mr. Khan’s effort. Arguably, that was the case until the NDP came into power and cracked down on the Wild Western financing of political parties by corporations and unions that had been situation normal in Alberta for generations.

That said, to give the author his due, Colby Cosh was entertaining while making fun of Alberta political institutions like the Wildrose Party for facing the fate of becoming not much more than PACs themselves – which is better than what happened to the United Farmers of Alberta, a party that once ruled Alberta and is now a chain of commercial gas stations where you might also be able to wash your car and buy a freezie.

Nowadays, with Mr. Kenney swinging his substantial political weight around, the election-financing scene here is actually in danger of becoming more like Chicago in the 1920s!

If there’s a sound complaint to be had with Mr. Khan’s call for action, it’s only that he hasn’t really provided any indication beyond the broad strokes of what he has in mind.

The Liberal Party news release says he is “proposing strict regulations, including the banning of corporate and union donations to PACs, setting donation limits, and making donations to PACs above $250 and PAC expenditures transparent to the public.” In addition, though not in the news release, the Liberals have called for prohibiting out-of-province donations to PACs.

That’s all good. But not explained, for example, are important details like how to define PACs, and how to prevent political operators like Mr. Kenney’s supporters from just setting up non-PAC PACs to get around the next set of rules.

But when I asked the party if it could flesh out how this might work, an official told me that “our policy team is currently working on further details to these fundamental proposals and they will be made available in due course.”

This suggests they didn’t really expect such a positive reaction for their news release. Well, as we’ve learned in Alberta, small parties can become big governments overnight. Mr. Khan would be smart to do that work before making policy announcements if he wants to be taken really seriously.

That said, his fundamental point is well taken. If we don’t do the work as a society to control political spending and make its sources transparent in more than just the formal period after an election writ is dropped, we will miss the train before it chugs out of the station!

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  1. Interesting how where you live changes your perception. I have frequented UFA farm supply stores for over 30 years buying building materials, livestock feed, plumbing supplies etc. Now I certainly have bought fuel and oil from their bulk fuel outlets but not the first thing that comes to mind when I think UFA.

    As for David Khan, I am sure he is more concerned about Alberta Together and their little shindig in Red Deer last Saturday. The big question is how much does money actually change how people vote? Look at Alberta’s last election. The PC’s spent what 3 or 4 times as much as the NDP. How did that go? In the latest BC election didn’t the Liberals spend far more than the NDP and Green’s. Was that money well spent? I think it comes down to 2 things, judgement of the incumbent’s performance and is it time for a change. Personally, this constant clatter about campaign financing makes those who bring it up look afraid of the competition. The most unfortunate thing is that the government in power can spend millions unchecked promoting what they are doing and this gives them a huge spending advantage. The NDP spent about 10 million pushing their climate leadership plan. Did that work? With Premier Notley at 28% approval it doesn’t look like it. If you really worried about what others are spending why not just come up with better policies that people will vote for.

  2. I think one of the better things about Canada vs. the US is we have managed to significantly rein in the “wild west” of political fundraising in recent years. While the problem isn’t only a western one (Ontario and Ottawa have had some recent issues with fundraising events too), it seems to have historically been that the rules were looser in the west. With the reduction of contribution limits by the Alberta NDP a couple of years ago and elimination of corporate and union contributions, Alberta seems to have come into line with what is being done elsewhere in Canada. Now, BC seems to be the remaining lone outpost of the wild west. However, after their recent election that seems likely to change.

    It would be very unfortunate if all this recent good work in Alberta would be undermined by people using roundabout ways to try again get large amounts of money into the political system. Large amounts of money corrupts the political system. We do not want to again see a scenario like in a previous Alberta election when a certain well off Edmonton businessman rounded up many of his family, friends and employees to give one political party a huge cheque for over $300,000 late in the election campaign and which likely influenced the outcome of that election.

    Mr. Kenney may want a return to that type of wild west, but many of us wonder what favours and influence those that bankroll those PAC’s will get in return for their large contributions. Whatever it is, he will probably pay much more attention to them and their concerns than average Albertans and that is exactly the problem right there. We need to ensure that those who are eager to grasp power will not be bought.

  3. A passing resemblance to George Clooney? Maybe if I was passing him from a great distance at a great speed and I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

  4. This story does make me wonder how Jason Kenney has been getting by for the last many months since he surrendered his seat in the House of Commons. Is he indebted to a PAC?

    1. Well I’m sure after nearly 20 years in office he has a hell of a pension available to him. Maybe he’s borrowed against that. He’s also never been married or had any responsibility to anyone but himself so I’m sure he’s been squirrelling away his Parliamentary paycheques and ministerial topups for just such a day.

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