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 Daveberta.ca 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.