PHOTOS: Liberal Leader David Khan, left, and former leader and sole MLA David Swann in front of the Alberta Legislature last week. Below: NDP Labour and Democratic Renewal Minister Christina Gray, Alberta Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler (Photo: Elections Alberta), Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, and ethics and accountability committee chair Jessica Littlewood.

Later today, we’ll get a look at the Notley Government’s legislative plans to control the activities of so-called “political action committees” – presumably including limiting or banning corporate donations and opening the identities of donors to public scrutiny.

Labour Minister Christina Gray, who also holds the NDP Government’s Democratic renewal portfolio, will table Bill 32, An Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta, at 3 o’clock this afternoon. There will be an embargoed technical briefing for media in the morning.

We’ve already seen the private member’s bill dealing with the same affront to democracy that was introduced by the Alberta Liberals’ sole elected representative, Calgary-Mountain View MLA David Swann. Dr. Swann is the former Liberal leader.

It must be acknowledged Dr. Swann’s Bill 214, An Act to Regulate Political Action Committees, seems like a pretty solid piece of legislation that addresses the principal unintended consequence of the NDP Government’s legislative efforts to ban corporate and union donations to political parties.

An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta was the first law passed by the NDP Government in June 2015. “It puts the power back in the hands of Alberta citizens rather than those with the deepest pockets in terms of determining the political future of this province,” Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said hopefully at the time.

The all-party Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee tried through 2016 to fine tune that legislation, but that effort foundered in the fall when Opposition MLAs couldn’t resist using the forum to undermine the government by attacking the committee’s chair, Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville NDP MLA Jessica Littlewood.

At that point, additional rules to regulate corporate and union money in elections were brought forward by the government, and the Legislature passed the Fair Elections Financing Act a year ago in December 2016.

Alas, the PAC problem persisted.

The instant it had become illegal for big-money sources to donate directly to political parties, cash started flowing into completely unregulated PACs that were just a step away from the parties they were set up to support. PACs are another pernicious U.S. political innovation that lacked even a legal definition in Alberta, let alone any meaningful reporting rules or other controls.

This was unfortunate but, human nature being what it is, should have surprised no one. As author Dave Cournoyer shrewdly summarized the problem, “like flowing water, political money will find the path of least resistance.”

Alberta conservatives of various stripes were particularly blatant about how they were using these completely unregulated slush funds – or, I suppose, if you wanted to spin it their way, they were refreshingly honest.

They made no bones about the fact PACs were their strategic fallback now that corporate cash could no longer go directly to their parties and candidates, and that money was flowing in from sources unknown to all but them. I had the impression some of the principal operatives in the big PAC funds were honestly amused anyone was offended by this. What the heck? No laws were broken!

Of course, if you believed that come election time there would be no illegal but impossible-to-prove co-ordination of party campaigns with PAC spending, well, I have several bridges across the North Saskatchewan and Bow rivers you may be interested in investing in.

Dr. Swann’s bill, which is structured as an amendment to the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, would create a legal definition of a PAC, require PACs to be registered with Elections Alberta, and then ensure they obey the same contribution and disclosure rules as political parties. That would include an extension of the ban on corporate and union donations, out-of-province funds, and donations from political parties to PACs.

Bill 214 sets a low level of $1,000 both for political spending and donations accepted before a PAC must register with Elections Alberta.

In October, the CBC reported that a PAC fund associated with United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney had raised more money than any registered political party in this year’s third quarter. As the CBC explained it, the Alberta Advantage Fund (one really feels that title should be in quotation marks) “pulled in several donations of $50,000 in the third quarter.” Well, we all know how that works, don’t we?

If the NDP was inclined to move cautiously and take its time resolving this issue, the Liberals were not. Bill 214 was the key part of the effort by the Liberals – led from outside the House by Calgary lawyer David Khan and inside it by Dr. Swann – to apply pressure on the government to get cracking.

“We need to shine a light on the unregulated dark money that is corrupting our democracy,” said Mr. Khan in a much-quoted news release announcing the introduction of Bill 214.

“Albertans deserve to know who has donated and who is donating to PACs, how much they are donating, and where this money is going afterwards,” he continued according to the news release. “It’s the only way they can be confident that big money is not buying and selling our democracy.”

The Liberal news release said Dr. Swann sought input from Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler – as did the government as well.

If, as Mr. Cournoyer points out is likely, Bill 214 is removed from the Order Paper because of its focus similar to the government’s bill, Dr. Swann will have the opportunity to propose amendments to the government legislation.

But he’ll need to act quickly, as it’s likely the government wants to see its bill passed by Thursday, when the Legislature shuts down for the holiday break.

In the Liberal news release, Dr. Swann expressed his hope there will be “swift and meaningful action from the government and all Members of the Assembly to protect our democracy from those who are more concerned with winning than ensuring the voice of the people is heard and the public interest is served.”

It will be interesting to see if his optimism is justified.

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  1. Good move and long overdue. We don’t want to end up in the same position as our neighbours to the south.

    No group should be able to ‘buy’ their way into Government.

    1. Speaking of our neighbours to the south, let’s hope the legislation is carefully drafted to successfully resist a Charter challenge. The Citizens United decision in the States effectively gutted any political finance constraints in that country, by equating money with speech and therefore finding that such laws violate the First Amendment. We are fortunate that our Charter contains the “reasonable limits” clause, which may protect such legislation in this country, but you can bet your last mortgage payment that some deep-pocketed conservative lobby group will challenge the law to test that out.

  2. Let’s hope there are provisions regulating PACs outside of election periods (as well as inside election periods) that cover candidate races, leadership races, specific/designated campaign efforts (i.e. Right to Work campaigns, Carbon Levy Initiatives and Provincial Sales Tax campaigns and university/college donations etc.)

    For a comprehensive look inside the world of dark money and the implications it has on society/elections I highly recommend reading American author Jane Mayer’s compelling best selling book, “Dark Money”. Mayer is an American investigative journalist who writes for The New Yorker. The book is current and was published in 2016.

  3. It will be interesting to see if the NDP is honest enough to include Progress Alberta and Friends of Medicare under this legislation, or will it only be organizations that don’t support their agenda? Also, I wonder if any credible legal opinions were sought in regards to this law’s constitutionality towards freedom of expression. I am pretty sure the ability to speak up and express your beliefs in whatever format you like is considered one of our fundamental freedoms.

    If the last provincial election showed anything, it is that Albertan elections can’t be bought. The PCs spent $4.3 million vs $1.6 million for the NDP and $1.2 million for the WRP. So the evidence directly contradicts this narrative that money buys elections in Alberta. I personally give the average Albertan more credit than you in being able to make up their own minds rather than just parroting whatever ads happen to be on TV.

  4. The next step to protect election integrity: Advertising transparency on social media. Especially Facebook.

    excerpt: ‘Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” ‘

    All parties and players in election campaigns should be required to file on a public register the content of election advertising on social media.

    As soon as each advert campaign starts. Not after the election.

    The Trump campaign on Facebook is our warning.

    We’ve been warned of what’s likely to happen in AB in 2019, given that we’ve seen that the UCP is willing just make stuff up and bullshit/exaggerate about the carbon levy numbers, despite various non-partisan experts and MSM pointing out the complete nonsense underlying the UCP claims.

    Excerpts below to explain the core issue.

    excerpt: ‘Across the landscape, it began to dawn on people: Damn, Facebook owns us.

    Pariser suggests in his book, “one simple solution to this problem would simply be to require campaigns to immediately disclose all of their online advertising materials and to whom each ad is targeted.” Which could happen in future campaigns.’

    excerpt: ‘In late 2014, The Daily Dot called attention to an obscure Facebook-produced case study on how strategists defeated a statewide measure in Florida by relentlessly focusing Facebook ads on Broward and Dade counties, Democratic strongholds. Working with a tiny budget … Chong and Koster was able to obtain remarkable results. “Where the Facebook ads appeared, we did almost 20 percentage points better than where they didn’t,” testified a leader of the firm.’

    excerpt: ‘… As the number of different segments and messages increases, it becomes harder and harder for the campaigns to track who’s saying what to whom,” Pariser wrote. “How does a [political] campaign know what its opponent is saying if ads are only targeted to white Jewish men between 28 and 34 who have expressed a fondness for U2 on Facebook and who donated to Barack Obama’s campaign?”

    This did, indeed, become an enormous problem.’

    excerpt: ‘In June 2014, Harvard Law scholar Jonathan Zittrain wrote an essay in New Republic called, “Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” in which he called attention to the possibility of Facebook selectively depressing voter turnout. ‘

    That last excerpt about depressing the vote was part, maybe a large part, of what happened to Clinton’s vote in the small states that gave Trump the Electoral College, based on analyses of Obama vs. Clinton turnout.

  5. If the Conservatives want to accept large corporate donations, like they did in the past, then they should just be upfront about it with the voters, say so and make it a clear part of their platform to change the rules back to what their predecessor PC party had.

    The whole idea of PAC’s is sneaky and sleazy, a way to get around the rules in place and undermine them. It is exactly the sort of loophole approach to the rules by politicians that a lot of voters detest. The UCP and its leaders seem to want to move in direction of using PAC’s to get large donations from unidentified donors, rather than the more grass roots small donation approach the Wildrose took.

    The only real “advantage” of PAC’s is for wealth donors to buy influence anonymously. The sooner this loophole gets closed the better.

  6. More recent arguments for making political advertising, and especially election advertising transparent on Facebook. Published October 19, 2017

    Taylor Owen is an assistant professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at UBC and a fellow at the Public Policy Forum.

    excerpt: ‘How exactly should the Canadian government protect the integrity of the next federal election, in which interest groups, corporations, foreign actors and political campaigns may all run hundreds of thousands, or millions, of simultaneous microtargeted ads a day?

    It could force complete transparency of all paid content of any kind shown to Canadians during the election period, as with other media. It could demand disclosure of all financial, location and targeting data connected to this paid content. It could place significant fines on the failure to quickly remove misinformation and hate speech.

    It could ensure that independent researchers have access to the platform’s data, rather than merely relying on Facebook’s good intentions.

    Political parties and the government could even model good behaviour themselves by ceasing to spend millions of dollars of our money on Facebook’s microtargeted ads.’


    Why would we trust Facebook to safeguard our democracies?

    excerpt: ‘A Pew Research Center survey in September found that 45 per cent of American adults today get their news from Facebook—and that percentage is probably higher in Canada, which has the most active Facebook population in the world.’


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