Calgary·Q&A

Alberta NDP float new ways to control campaign spending and individual donations to political parties

The Mount Royal University professor tells us what an all-party committee, dominated by the NDP, has been working on over the summer to reform Alberta’s electoral system.

‘This is where partisanship and public interest kind of merge,’ says policy studies prof Duane Bratt

A special ethics and accountability committee tasked with reforming Alberta's electoral system has been busy this summer. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

While you were on vacation, the Alberta government was tinkering away at the provincial Election Act.

Several proposals to control campaign spending and individual donations to political parties were floated and approved over the summer months at an all-party, NDP-dominated government committee tasked with reforming Alberta's electoral system — but they still need to be debated and voted on in the legislature.

  • Should there be stricter limits on how much money Albertans are allowed to donate to politics? Leave your comments below.

To bring us up to speed, the Calgary Eyeopener invited Duane Bratt to the show on Monday. He chairs the department of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University. The following Q&A is a slightly condensed transcription of his interview with the CBC's David Gray:

Q: Can you explain what the NDP are trying to do here?

A: So the first series of changes were about the ban on overall spending by parties. So putting a ceiling on how much they can spend during an election of roughly 80 cents per voter — so $2.2-million per party — and they also put limits on particular constituencies depending on their geographic size because the ability of campaigning in urban riding is much different than the costs of a very large rural riding.

Then they wanted to provide a rebate to the parties of 50 per cent of all of their spending as long as they receive 10 per cent of the vote. More controversially, they wanted to put limits on party leadership races, and this important as the PC's are going through a leadership race right now. They wanted to put about $330,000 on a party leadership race — $330,000 sounds high except we've had numerous leader races, most notably Jim Prentice's, but others as well, that have exceed $1-million and in some cases $2-million.

Limit on individual donations

And then final one is … a limit, not on how much parties could spend, but on how much people could donate to parties — of $4,000. It's $4,000 whether you donate specifically to a party, specifically to a constituency association and much more controversially — if you use that money for a leadership candidate or for a party nomination race.

So if you were donate $4,000 let's say to Jason Kenney's leadership race, it means you can't donate any other dollars to the Progressive Conservative party. And that's why it's seen as not just in the public interest, but it's also seen in the NDP interest. And this is where partisanship and public interest kind of merge.

Duane Bratt chairs the department of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Q: So explain that. How does this work out better for the NDP than the other parties if the same rules apply to all of them?

A: The same rules apply to everybody but all of the leadership races that I've cited in the past have all been Progressive Conservative races, because they were the party in power. Even on election spending, the NDP traditionally spend less than other parties.

When they brought in the ban on corporate and union donations right after they were elected — it applied equally, but the amount of money that the NDP received from the unions was significantly less than what the PC's and even the Wild Rose received from corporations. And going after leadership races when the NDP already has a leader, and it's unlikely that Rachel Notley is going to face that, seems to be aimed at opposition parties.

The rebate of getting 50 per cent of your spending back as long as your receive 10 per cent of the vote would also hurt smaller parties  — Greens, Liberals, Alberta Party — but would really support the NDP. So on the surface, all of these rules are equal but you could view them in some respects as being to the NDP's advantage and hurting other parties.

Q: Whatever they propose will pass easily because the New Democrats hold a majority. But are you convinced big money is a problem in politics in Alberta?

A: Oh absolutely, and so I support many of these proposals. I support the ban on corporate and union donations. I felt that the old limits of $15,000 (during a non-election year) and $30,000 (during an election year) were quite obscene so there's a lot of good things in here — but there's a lot of other things in here that seem to benefit one party over the other.

Red zone restriction

And the last thing I'll give you is one of the major loopholes is about government spending pre-election period. All governments have done this — where government announcements of a new school, for example, seem to be a political ad to the party in power.

Some provinces have what's called a "red zone restriction" so in the last six weeks, two months prior to the start of an election campaign there's a limit on government spending — that hasn't been introduced by the NDP yet. And that's the one lever that they would still be able to control.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

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