New Alberta bill introduces restrictions on PACs, but allows them to accept corporate, union donations

A bill introduced Monday avoids some key steps to clamp down on PACs. It doesn’t explicitly ban corporate and union donations to PACs, nor does it legislate a cap, as it has done for contributions to political parties.

Bill aims to prevent collusion between PACs, candidates and political parties

In June, NDP MLA Christina Gray tabled a private members' bill that would reverse the pension changes in a 2019 omnibus bill that shifted more public-sector pensions under AIMCo's control. (CBC)

The Alberta government is introducing new rules to restrict the use of political action committees.

The NDP says political action committees (PACs) are being used to circumvent election financial limits on candidates and parties.

But a bill introduced Monday avoids some key steps to clamp down on PACs. Bill 32 doesn't explicitly ban corporate and union donations to PACs, nor does it legislate a cap, as it has done for contributions to political parties.

Democratic Renewal MInister Christina Gray said that's because past court decisions have ruled in favour of giving these entities freedom of expression and association.

"Making sure that corporations, unions and all people are able to express their content or discontent with the government, to express themselves and associate freely, was something we needed to protect," she said. "And we wanted to find that right balance."

Gray said the legislation would achieve that balance by placing limits on spending in the months before a general election and limiting what PACs can spend money on. A new election commissioner would be able to investigate breaches of the law.

Under election laws passed last year, PACs have to disclose their donors to Elections Alberta.

The act also strengthens rules for preventing collusion between PACs and a political party or candidate. It also doesn't specifically define what a PAC is, to prevent current and future organizations from circumventing the rules, Gray argued.

"When you specifically define things, it provides an opportunity for someone to then shift or adjust so that they no longer fit that definition," Gray said.

In October, Alberta Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler urged the government to take action on PACs to prohibit corporations, unions and people outside Alberta from making donations.

'No impact' on PACs

Last week, the Alberta Liberals introduced a private member's bill that aimed to reform PACs. The Liberals say the government's bill will have very little impact. 

"It doesn't do anything to address corporate, union or out-of-province donations," said Liberal Leader David Khan,"or any of the PAC activities that mirror those what political parties and candidates should be doing, such as spending money on polling, on staff."​

Khan said the legislation does not require political action committees to register, unless they plan to undertake any advertising. He said Gray's measures look like they were added to an existing bill on electoral reform at the last minute. 

PACs have raised millions of dollars in support of Jason Kenney's bids for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party and United Conservative Party.

In July, Kenney cited privacy concerns for not revealing the names of 63 donors who contributed $395,047 of the $508,000 raised by his Unite Alberta PAC prior to the start of the PC leadership campaign. 

Elections law at the time did not require him to disclose any donors who contributed outside the writ period.

Khan said Alberta NDP MLAs keep complaining about how Kenney hasn't disclosed all his donors, yet do nothing about it even though their party is in government. 

Khan rejects Gray's reasons for failing to ban corporate and union donations. 

"I think that's a weak argument. That's political spin from a minister that doesn't understand the law and the real issue at play," he said.

"At no time in Canada has the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that corporations or unions have a right to free speech. That's an American import into the political discourse in Canada that has no legal justification."

Spending limits

The NDP banned corporate and union donations to political parties when it first formed government in 2015.

Instead of extending the ban to PACs, the government is opting to place constraints on what they can do.

Under Bill 32, PACs can only spend $150,000 after Dec. 1, prior to any provincial general election, until the date the writ is issued. Under Alberta law, elections are held every four years in the spring.

PACs could spend another $150,000 during the campaign period but not more than $3,000 targeting a candidate in a particular constituency.

PACs could no longer spend money on fundraising, selling memberships or collecting voter information that could be forwarded to a candidate or political party.

Only volunteers and people who make a donation under Alberta election rules (no more than $4,000 in total annually) would be allowed to undertake these activities.

Under existing legislation, a person who is guilty of a corrupt practice can face a maximum fine of $50,000 or two years in jail.

A PAC or third-party advertiser that is a union, employer organization or corporation that breaks the law would face a maximum $100,000 fine.

The bill would prohibit the government from making funding announcements during elections so taxpayers' money isn't used to influence the outcome of the vote.

There are some exceptions. The government could still advertise for measures required under law, for important health and safety issues, for procurement and employment, and for ongoing programs.

The new bill also includes measures designed to increase voter participation.

They include removing the six-month minimum residency requirement to vote in an election, and pre-registering all 16- and 17-year-olds so they are registered to vote when they turn 18.

The government also wants to add another advance voting day before each election.

The bill makes it a requirement, not an option, to set up mobile polls at supportive living facilities and treatment centres.  Emergency centres and homeless shelters are also added to the list.