Alberta NDP plan to level playing field for political donations goes askew

When Alberta’s brand spanking new NDP government took power in 2015, its first legislative move was to restrict the influence of well-financed interests on provincial politics.

Political action committees may be tilting fundraising advantage to UCP

Political action committees supporting the NDP and the United Conservative Party have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. (CBC)

Well, that didn't quite go according to plan.

When Alberta's brand spanking new NDP government took power in 2015, its first legislative move was to restrict the influence of well-financed interests on provincial politics.

The government introduced Bill 1: An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta.

The act outlawed political contributions from unions and corporations.

"Our political system has been far, far too dependent on funds from a narrow range of donors with deep pockets and too far removed from the interests of ordinary people," said Premier Rachel Notley at the time. "We will tilt the playing field back in Albertans' favour, so that their interests come first as an initial step to restore openness and trust in government."

But as we keep being reminded, it is not that simple.

Money from those with deep pockets has a way of finding its way into politics, if not through the front door then through the back.

New political beast

And if not via political parties then through a relatively new political beast called the

Political Action Committee (PAC) or third-party advertiser.

PACs are prevalent in U.S. politics where they raise and spend millions of dollars, and are becoming something of an invasive species in Canada.

PACs are shadowy organizations that can raise unlimited amounts of money to spend on advertisements, run political opinion polls, conduct political research and promote political causes -- all in support of their favourite party and politicians.

This week we heard the disturbing story about a new PAC called Shaping Alberta's Future that has collected $375,000 in three months, much of the money coming from Alberta's car dealers who desperately want Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party to defeat the NDP.

The PAC has already spent money on attacks ads against the NDP on radio, television and social media.

What's disturbing isn't that Shaping Alberta's Future raised such a large amount of money or that it is eager to see the NDP go down to defeat in the 2019 election.

Those are two perfectly legal goals.

What's disturbing is that there seemed to be a belief by car dealers, including the Motor Dealers Association of Alberta (MDA), that if they supported Kenney via Shaping Alberta's Future, Kenney would reward the dealers via legislative changes next year (should he become premier in the election expected by May).

Letter urged donations

The MDA, after meeting with Kenney in September, sent a letter to its members urging them to send money to the Kenney-friendly PAC because Kenney had promised, among other things, to scrap the legislated changes to Alberta's Labour Code and Workers' Compensation Board.

The motor dealers are angry with the "negative impacts to the automotive industry due to budgetary and legislative changes imposed by the Alberta NDP government over the past three years."

Both the UCP and MDA have been bending over backwards this week to deny Kenney had in fact made any promises in exchange for donations to Shaping Alberta's Future.

This should concern Albertans because big money has not been elbowed out of politics. It has simply found a new entrance. Instead of donors giving large contributions to political parties they now give large contributions to political action committees that support political parties.

Simply banning PACs isn't possible.

The courts have already supported the committees under Charter rights to free speech. And it's not just Kenney and the UCP that are being helped.

There are PACs set up to help the NDP (it's just that PACs that support the UCP are more successful than those that like the NDP).

You could even argue the Alberta Federation of Labour is pretty much a large PAC.

NDP PACs say they support issues

The difference, say the NDP-friendly PACs, is that they support issues championed by the NDP whereas PACs such as Shaping Alberta's Future have crossed the line and have become a surrogate for the UCP.

The NDP is so upset with the negative ads run by Shaping Alberta's Future that it has sent a four-page letter to Alberta's election commissioner. "This PAC is undertaking its work entirely for the purpose of doing the work of a political party," complains the NDP.

There is a political irony here.

When the NDP outlawed political donations from unions and corporations in 2015, it wasn't just trying to make politics more democratic, it was aiming squarely at hobbling the Progressive Conservative Party that had been supported for decades by large corporate contributions.

The NDP succeeded. The PC party was weakened. However, that made the party an easy target for Kenney to take over in 2016 and unify it with the Wildrose to form the United Conservative Party.

Kenney and the UCP, with the help of well-funded political action committees, are now a huge threat to the the Notley government.

For the NDP, this has certainly not gone according to plan.

Graham Thomson is a political analyst who has covered Alberta politics as a reporter and columnist for more than 30 years.

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.