Alberta to explore regulating political action committees

The Alberta government is looking at options to regulate political action committees, says Democratic Renewal Minister Christina Gray.

3 prominent political action committees formed in past year; 1 raised $500,000 for political candidate

Jason Kenney launches his bid to take the helm of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives in summer 2016, before the leadership race officially began in the fall. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

The Alberta government is looking at options to regulate political action committees, says Democratic Renewal Minister Christina Gray. 

Last fall, the NDP introduced new rules to cap political fundraising and spending through The Fair Elections Financing Act.

"What I find interesting is the opposition voted with us to get big money out of politics and we thought that they meant it," Gray said on Wednesday. "Now, we're seeing these political action committees throughout the province and I share Albertans' frustrations with these groups."

On Tuesday, Elections Alberta published the financial statements of the PC leadership race. In addition to fundraising $1.49 million during the writ period of the leadership race, winner Jason Kenney's campaign team said he received $508,000 in contributions beforehand through a political action committee, Unite Alberta.

Under Elections Alberta law, Kenney was not obliged to report the details of those donations, but said he would make them public as per the agency's rules. 

By email, Kenney's spokesperson Blaise Boehmer has explained $212,953 of the $508,000. 

While Elections Alberta lists the names of donors who give more than $250 to political candidates during the writ period, Boehmer said the campaign team received legal advice to obtain the consent of the 137 contributors who gave more than $250 to Unite Alberta before the writ, and only 74 of them agreed to do so. 

That leaves 63 anonymous contributors who donated $395,047 combined to Kenney's campaign through Unite Alberta during the pre-writ period. 

Boehmer said the Kenney campaign team is "proud to have raised over $2 million from Albertans of all walks of life."

"We make no apologies for running a successful [political action committee] and leadership campaign, and it's quite understandable that other parties are envious of our success."

Legislative loophole

Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan said the Kenney campaign has set a precedent for exploiting a loophole in the law.

That's just corrupted the whole system.- Liberal Leader David Khan

"He took in massive amounts of money pre-writ and hasn't been transparent on who he raised that money from," Khan said. "That's just corrupted the whole system because it's just done a runaround of the reporting requirements of the legislation."

The Fair Elections Financing Act, which didn't apply to the PC leadership race because it was already underway, limited the aggregate amount an individual could donate in a year to $4,000. It had previously been set at $15,000 (and doubled to $30,000 in an election year). 

The bill also capped the amount a party can spend on an election campaign at $2 million. Individual candidates can spend $50,000, although there are some exemptions for travel costs and child care. 

While Khan wants the same rules to apply to political action committees, Gray said that likely won't be possible. 

"We need to take into account what courts across Canada have said when it comes to the rights of individuals and groups to speak on legal issues," Gray said. 

I want to be looking at our legal options.- Democratic Renewal Minister Christina Gray

"I want to be looking at our legal options so that we can continue to support the spirit of our legislation."

Since Unite Alberta began fundraising for the Kenney campaign, two other political action committees have formed: Alberta Together and United Liberty. 

Both boast high-profile right-wing associations. Neither could be reached for comment on fundraising rules. 

"These PACs [political action committees] are doing political party work in an unregulated manner," said Khan, adding he was approached by Alberta Together, which advocates for uniting centrists. 

"This is undermining our democracy, fundamentally undermining our democracy," Khan said. "Something's got to be done."