Alberta local elections bill gets mixed reaction from experts, former candidates

Policy experts and former candidates are giving a mixed reaction to the changes under the Bill 29, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act.

Bill 29, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act, introduces a slew of changes

Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu takes questions on Bill 29 at a news conference on Wednesday. (CBC)

Policy experts and former candidates are giving a mixed reaction to the changes under the Bill 29, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act.

The new bill was unveiled this week by Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu. It introduces a slew of changes to rules for municipal and trustee elections that would go into effect Sept. 1, if passed.

Among the changes proposed: removing the requirement for candidates to disclose their donors prior to election day, removing limits on spending by third-party advertisers outside the local election campaign period from May 1 to election day in October, and allowing individuals to donate up to $5,000 to as many candidates as they want during an election.

Existing legislation caps donations so one individual can donate only $4,000 in total during a campaign. 

The bill follows a review by the province, which says it conducted extensive consultation with voters, advocacy groups, elected officials, municipalities and various school board and municipal associations.

Zack Taylor, director of the Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance at the University of Western Ontario in London, says the changes break a trend among provinces.

"This is the first example I've come across of a government basically weakening provisions, rather than strengthening them," he said. Taylor recently submitted an article about election finance rules looking at all 10 provinces.

He said for years, Western Canada was known as the "Wild West" for campaign finances but that rules have been tightened in the last five years.

Government talking points frame the legislation as levelling the playing field for newcomers to take on incumbents.

"I don't understand that argument at all," said Taylor, who defines fairness as giving incumbents and challengers access to similar levels of funding.

"Taking the lid off of expenditure and contribution really does nothing to ensure fairness," he said. "What it ultimately ends up doing is that those who can raise the most money from people who can donate whatever they want will have an advantage."

Taylor said the $5,000 cap would "not be particularly onerous to wealthy individuals."

The new legislation does keep a ban on donations from unions and corporations. It also makes it so candidates do not have to file any disclosures before election day.

Lisa Young, a professor at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, said that disclosure information is important for voters to understand who a candidate might be beholden to or what they might do in office.

Keeping track of that information should not be a barrier to a new candidate, she said.

"And if it is, then, potentially a pretty badly managed campaign."

She said it's the major municipalities — Edmonton and Calgary — that would most likely be affected by the new legislation.

"What we typically see in city elections is that the group who most want to make contributions to candidates would be the development industry," she said, adding that even though corporate donations are not permitted, corporate owners or associates can still press their influence.

Former candidates weigh in

Bill Knight, who ran against incumbent Scott McKeen for Ward 6 in Edmonton's 2017 election, disagrees with the argument that removing the donor disclosure rule would make paperwork easier for candidates.

"I don't buy that," he said. "We're not talking millions of dollars we're raising here, we're talking tens of thousands — it's not that much paperwork."

Knight also believes donor disclosure should be public knowledge at any time. However, he isn't opposed to lifting the cap and allowing donors to fund multiple campaigns.

"I think as a Canadian citizen, I should be able to get my money wherever I want, whenever I want, whatever I choose," he said.

"I am OK with them getting as much money as possible."

Payman Parseyan ran for Ward 9 in Edmonton during the 2017 municipal election. (David Bajer/CBC)

When Payman Parseyan ran in Ward 9 in the last Edmonton municipal election, the current $4,000 total cap in donations was not in place. He said changes to donation amounts proposed by the new legislation would not look too different than in previous elections.

"Frankly, this doesn't really change a whole lot for what the election was in 2017 or 2013."

But Parseyan said the bill allowing candidates to self-finance up to $10,000 per year would have helped a candidate like him. He relied on his own business and self-funding rather than outside donations.

"This way you can keep outside influence out on somebody who can afford to run a campaign this way."

Municipal elections in Alberta are next slated for 2021.

With files from Madeleine Cummings and Michelle Bellefontaine


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