A new public policy group funded by the conservative Manning Centre launched Thursday in Calgary to raise awareness around issues in October's election.
Common Sense is headed by a Conservative Party organizer and received seed money from the Manning Centre, a conservative think-tank. Organizers say it will focus on issues like mobility, safety and accessibility in the run-up to the election next month.
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"It's intended to raise the level of debate in order to focus both citizens and candidates on public policy issues in this campaign," said Rick Billington, the group's spokesperson.
The group says it is not pushing a conservative agenda but rather aims to raise important issues in the race for mayor.
However, Common Sense has a website criticizing Calgary's city planners and listing a car dealer, real estate agency and powerful Calgary home builders as supporters.
"There are people who have a lot of money and have expressed already a desire to shift the balance on city council to be more favourable to [developers]," said Lori Williams, associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University. "The absence of anything that explicitly addresses some of these concerns looks like there are a few people who want to push their political or financial weight around."
Earlier this year, a secretly-recorded video showed the head of one of Calgary's biggest home building companies, Cal Wenzel of Shane Homes, outlining a plan to defeat members of council who developers see as being anti-development.
Part of the plan involved donating money to the Manning Centre to help train fiscally-conservative candidates ahead of the city's fall election.
Wenzel later denied that home builders wanted control of city council and said they just want to ensure that council members know about development issues.
Super PAC-style fundraising?
One of the concerns being raised over the group involved third-party campaign fundraising for candidates.
While candidates can spend as much as they like, there is currently a $5,000 limit for a single donation.
In the secretly-recorded video, Wenzel and the assembled developers discussed ways to aid specific candidates after giving the maximum donation, such as providing the use of trucks and helping to assemble signs.
"One of the big challenges in our campaign finance reform is that there are no restrictions whatsoever on third parties," said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. "If I'm a donor — say, a suburban home builder — and I've already donated $5,000, which is the legal maximum to a candidate, I can donate an unlimited amount to a third party that will advocate on behalf of the candidate. That's a huge loophole. We don't need Super PACs in our elections."
A Super PAC is a recent kind of political action committee with the power to raise funds from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups without any legal limit on donation size. While they cannot make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, they can engage in unlimited spending independent of those campaigns.
Super PACs are prominent in the United States and played a major role in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
In a situation with low voter turnout, having the backing of a third party could make a significant difference, says Williams.
"If there's third party advertising that isn't subject to campaign financing rules, if there's money being offered to enable somebody to run a better campaign or they're bringing people out in larger numbers, there are questions about whether this is really respectful of the democratic will of Calgarians as a whole but rather an attempt by a few wealthy, powerful individuals to move things in a direction that serves them," she said.
"If the issue is really about focusing on issues, then why do we see campaign-style ads showing up?"