Alberta government signals looming changes to election finances act

CBC News has learned the Alberta government intends to change the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act during the 2020 spring sitting of the legislature.

Government lawyer told court act will be 'rescinded or amended' in the spring

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at his election night headquarters in Calgary on April 16, 2019. Kenney's government has signalled changes are coming to the act governing election finances and contributions. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

First, the government of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney fired the election commissioner investigating the United Conservative Party's leadership campaign.

Now, CBC News has learned that early next year the government intends to change the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act, which was brought in by the previous NDP government.

The act identifies the rules relating to political contributions, financial reporting, third-party advertising and leadership contests.

Acting on a tip, a CBC News reporter attended a court hearing last week that was not posted on the electronic display board at the Edmonton courthouse. 

At the hearing, a lawyer representing Justice and Solicitor General Minister Doug Schweitzer unsuccessfully attempted to persuade a judge to postpone a constitutional challenge of the election finances act.

The court challenge of 55 sections of the election finance act had been brought by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) and other parties. The CTF is challenging a fine it received for failing to register as a third-party advertiser. 

Justice lawyer Nick Parker told the court it would be a waste of both parties' resources to continue the case as scheduled because, he said, the government had plans to "rescind or amend part of the election finance act" during the 2020 spring sitting of the legislature. 

In an application filed with the court, the Justice ministry argued that "a brief delay in the hearing of this matter will preserve both party and court resources in the event that legislative amendments render at least part of the current constitutional challenge to be moot or otherwise necessary."

Kenney wants 'big money' in politics: Notley

Parker also signalled the government planned to go further.

He told Court of Queen's Bench Associate Chief Justice John Rooke that the government has "plans for new legislation that will narrow the scope of this application, if not void it entirely."

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley told CBC News the court petition is "clear evidence that they're going to attack the rules that tried to keep the big money out of politics because they're clearly incapable of following them.

"They had to fire the guy that was investigating them," Notley said in an interview. "And the next step is to change the law because they can't function without having friends and insiders hand them big wads of cash."

In a brief emailed statement, Schweitzer's spokesperson did not respond directly to questions about specific changes planned for the act. 

"We won't speculate on hypothetical legislation," press secretary Jonah Mozeson said in the statement. "It is, of course, completely normal for regular review of elections laws, as the previous NDP government did on a number of occasions."

Mozeson directed CBC News to the UCP election platform, which states the party would remove big money from Alberta politics by imposing a $30,000 limit on donor contributions to political action committees (PACs) and "by closing the '(Alberta Federation of Labour) loophole' by prohibiting groups formally affiliated with political parties from running PACs."

Notley accused the premier of catering to the interests of a small group of wealthy people at the expense of the general public. 

Kenney reneged on a promise to release all the names of donors to Unite Alberta, an organization that supported his 2017 campaign for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party.

The party subsequently merged with the Wildrose to form the United Conservative Party.

Election commissioner fired

Last week the government fired Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson, who had investigated and issued fines totalling more than $200,000 against people involved in what has become known as the kamikaze campaign of UCP leadership contender Jeff Callaway.

Internal documents obtained by CBC News show the Kenney campaign collaborated with the Callaway campaign to run Callaway for the purpose of attacking Kenney's main rival for the party leadership, Brian Jean. Callaway later dropped out of the race and supported Kenney.

Kenney and Callaway have denied their campaigns collaborated. 

An investigation by Gibson subsequently revealed a straw donor scheme, in which a corporation allegedly provided $60,000 to the Callaway campaign which then distributed it among donors recruited to make the donations appear legitimate. 

Through a massive omnibus bill pushed through the legislature last week, the Kenney government fired Gibson and shifted his office's resources to the Chief Electoral Officer of Alberta. 

The UCP government has claimed Gibson could be rehired by the chief electoral officer and the consolidation of the offices will save $200,000 a year as part of its ongoing attempts to reduce the province's deficit.

But critics call Gibson's removal anti-democratic and an attempt to limit further political damage to the Kenney government. The RCMP continues to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the UCP leadership campaign. 

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