Albertans 'should be in control,' not political action committees, says Liberal leader

The leader of the Alberta Liberal party says if politicians don't support the bill to regulate political action committees, he hopes they explain why.

Third-party groups 'undermining and skirting the election financing laws,' according to David Khan

Alberta Liberal Party Leader David Khan says he hopes Bill 214 will succeed and regulate political funding that's going through third-party organizations. (Stephanie Wiebe/CBC)

The leader of the Alberta Liberal party says if politicians don't support the bill to regulate political action committees, he hopes they explain why.

Political action committees are independent groups that received donations in Alberta from individuals or corporations. They can spend that money to advertise political beliefs or to support political candidates.

Such activities are normally done by political parties, which operate under tight rules. The goal of those rules — pertaining to everything from the money's source to how much can be spent and when — is to provide transparency to Albertans so they know who's behind the political messaging they're receiving.

"This is a current issue and a serious issue," David Khan told the Calgary Eyeopener. "And all Albertans should be very concerned about big, dark, unregulated money undermining or otherwise corrupting our democracy here."

Political action committees, or PACs, have been involved in election campaigning in Alberta for several years.

A group calling itself Save Calgary ran ads on this electronic billboard in downtown Calgary but it's unclear who they are or where they get their money from. (Kate Adach/CBC)

A PAC called Save Calgary came under fire for spending anonymous money to criticize some candidates in the recent municipal election.

Alberta Together held a meeting about strategizing for the next provincial election, and the Alberta Advantage Fund, which is linked to United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, raised more money in this year's third quarter than any political party.

Alberta Liberal Party Leader David Khan spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray to explain the bill.

Q: What's wrong with people donating cash to help out politicians?

A: Basically, our democracy's under threat by these third-parties who are using PACs to skirt election financing and disclosure laws.

They're getting around our political financing laws and skirting them and doing things that would otherwise be in contravention of those laws by donating to these PACs, which then spend the money on whatever political parties would normally spend their money on.

Q: Our democracy's under threat, you say. Explain to me how that is.

A: It's because there's no regulations on this money: where it can come from, who can donate, what they can spend on.

Some of your listeners may be aware of what's been going on in the U.S. for a number of years now with things called Super PACs spending massive amounts of money to buy election coverage, and spend money on elections and on pretty much the same things that politicians and political parties spend their money on.

Q: Do donors to these PACs have to disclose their names or can they remain anonymous under the current rules?

A: They can remain anonymous and, let's be clear, they're not just individuals. They can be corporations, foreign corporations, foreign individuals.

Because they're anonymous and there's no transparency and no limits, we have no idea who's donating to these PACs or what kind of entity's donating to them.

Q: We've talked about this in Alberta before. There was the Fair Elections Financing Act passed last year, I recall. It was supposed to tighten the rules around fundraising. Did it not go far enough?

A: It very much tightened the rules around fundraising with respect to what political parties and candidates and leadership candidates and candidates for the legislature can raise, how they can raise money and how they can spend it.

But it completely did not address this issue of third-party entities like PACs, what they can raise and what they can spend and in support of whom.

So it basically closed the barn door, as I like to say, and left the back of the barn wide open for all of these PACs to do all the things that political parties can do but without the transparency and the accountability to Albertans.

Q: Now as a political leader, I have to ask you: Are you upset about this because of the effect on democracy or are you upset about this because it's not funnelling any money towards you and your party?

A: No, I'm upset about this because it's a fundamental threat to our democracy. We've seen that threat play out in the U.S., we've seen it — we're seeing it play out in the leadership races of parties in this province.

We've seen it play out in the municipal race with a PAC called Save Calgary, spending money to attack some candidates and support others.

So I'm very concerned about it because as an Albertan, the people of Alberta should be in control of their democracy — and not anonymous donors.

Q: You call it big, dark, unregulated money, and I appreciate you building on the U.S. example. But let's be clear, Here in Alberta, these are people operating legally in order to achieve an outcome that they feel passionately about. So there are two sides to this. Now Premier Notley has said that she plans to look further into this and address it. Are you going to wait until the NDs have moved forward?

A: No, we're bringing in our own bill, Bill 214, which will regulate these political action committees, who they can raise money from, what they can spend it on, a definition of political action committees.

Basically, you're right in that there's no laws regulating them right now so these activities, let's be clear, are not illegal.

But they are undermining and skirting the election financing laws that were put in place for a reason — so that ordinary Albertans have a say in their democracy.

I've been calling since June, sounding the alarm since June on this issue.

We Alberta Liberals do understand the severe nature of this problem and we're bringing in our own legislation, our own bill.

I hope that all parties support it — and if they don't support it, they stand up and say why they don't support accountability and transparency in our democracy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener