Calgary's 'wild west' of campaign finance law likely to change — after the election

This will likely be Calgary's final election under campaign finance rules that have been likened to the "wild west" for how relatively lawless they are.

Province plans to review relatively lax laws governing municipal elections sometime next year

Mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi, left, has published a list of his donors. He challenged rivals Andre Chabot and Bill Smith to do the same before the Oct. 16 election, but they have declined to do so. By law, they must disclose donors only after the election. (CBC)

This will likely be Calgary's final election under campaign finance rules that have been likened to the "wild west" for how relatively lawless they are.

Unlike at the provincial and federal level, candidates running for municipal government are allowed to accept corporate and union donations, in addition to donations from individuals.

And while there are some limits on donations — candidates can accept a maximum of $5,000 per year from each donor — there is no cap on how much candidates can spend.

In federal elections, by contrast, candidates face a hard cap on campaign spending based on the size of their riding, and the laws are strictly enforced.

But the Alberta government has plans to amend the laws governing municipal elections as early as next year.

"We anticipate conducting a review in early 2018 with the possibility of legislative amendments later that year," said Tim Seefeldt, a spokesperson for Alberta Municipal Affairs, told CBC News.

University of Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas expects the province will likely curb donation limits and put a cap on campaign spending.

In the last civic election, candidates for city council spent an average of roughly $74,000, based on campaign finance disclosures filed after the election was over.

Winning candidates spent even more — an average of about $134,000 — on advertising, lawn signs, staff and the other machinery of a campaign.

"This creates something of a fundraising 'arms race,' especially in competitive elections," Lucas wrote in a report on the topic, published Thursday.

"In 2013, for example, the contentious three-way race in Ward 7 between Druh Farrell, Kevin Taylor and Brent Alexander resulted in a whopping $461,000 in total campaign expenditures."

  • Scroll to the end of this story to see how much each candidate spent in Calgary's last election.

Lucas noted that candidates with the most money don't always win, though.

In the 2013 election, for example, James Maxim spent $276,539 running for the council seat in Ward 11 but was defeated by incumbent Brian Pincott, who spent $92,765.

There have also been calls to change the rules around when candidates must disclose their donors, as currently they don't legally have to until months after the election.

Some candidates voluntarily disclose their donors ahead of time, but there is no way of verifying if the donor lists are accurate or complete.

And, as limited as the current campaign-finance law is, there's also a loophole in it.

"Candidates are required to disclose any donations above $100, but there may be ways to get around this disclosure rule by channeling money through third-party organizations," Lucas explained.

Controversy brewed over the summer, for example, when a third-party group calling itself Save Calgary began buying ad space on a downtown billboard in a bid to unseat five members of council.

Currently, groups like this aren't subject to any donation limits or spending caps.

And they don't have to disclose their donors — something Lucas said ought to change.

"Clearer disclosure rules for third-party advertising would make third-party campaigns like Save Calgary more transparent and less controversial," he wrote.

Advance polls are open now for the 2017 civic election, and general election day is Oct. 16.

With files from Brooks DeCillia