New bill removes limits on donations to trustee, municipal candidates in Alberta

People could donate up to $5,000 to as many candidates as they want under changes proposed in a new municipal election financing bill introduced in the Alberta legislature Wednesday. 

Bill also lifts regulations on third-party advertisers outside campaign period

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

People could donate up to $5,000 to as many candidates as they want under changes proposed in a new municipal election financing bill introduced in the Alberta legislature Wednesday. 

Bill 29, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act, allows an individual with enough money to donate to as many municipal or school trustee candidates as they want in any jurisdiction across the province. 

The bill proposes the removal of limits on spending by third-party advertisers outside the local elections campaign period that runs from May 1 to election day in October. The bill also proposes removing the requirement for candidates to disclose their donors prior to election day. 

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

The bill still bans candidate donations from corporations and unions. 

Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu says these changes will level the playing field, making it easier for newcomers to challenge incumbents, and allowing candidates to focus on campaigning rather than focusing on paperwork. 

"I want them to focus on the subject matter of the campaign," Madu said. "What they will do for their municipality and their residents if given the opportunity and the privilege to serve." 

Wealthy donors

Madu rejected suggestions the changes will allow undue influence in a council or trustee race by wealthy donors with an agenda. 

"The proposals that we put in place will actually help do the reverse," Madu said. 

"If passed, more people across the province will be able to donate money to multiple candidates ... unlike in the past where a particular developer or pro-development interest group could take over an entire municipal election in one particular municipality because they've got the money to do that."

But critics have worried the change would allow people with deep pockets to donate to a slate of candidates. 

Bill 29 comes one day after the introduction of Bill 26 which would allow the province to hold referendums on more than just the constitutional issues allowed under current legislation. 

If Bill 26 is passed, third-party advertisers would be allowed to spend up to half a million dollars on an issue, more than triple the current limit of $150,000. A group would only be required to provide an audited financial statement to the chief electoral officer if they spend more than $350,000. 

The Opposition NDP says these measures allow so called "dark money" or anonymous donors to influence referendums.

Calgary-Buffalo MLA Joe Ceci, the NDP critic for municipal affairs, served five terms on Calgary city council. He said Wednesday that he rejects Madu's reasons for removing the $4,000 cap and the requirement for donor disclosure prior to election day. 

He said the minister is trying to deflect attention from how Bill 29 will allow big money into local elections. 

"It's clear to me that Jason Kenney is trying to buy local elections and put the people in place that he believes will be beholden to him and his government's ideals," Ceci said. 

When asked whether disclosing his donors got in the way of campaigning, Ceci exclaimed, "No!"

"It's laughable to hear the minister try and sell these lame arguments," he said, adding that local candidates often wanted to disclose their donors so they can show they aren't beholden to anyone. 

"You can't tell me that having financial people in the background who are doing the work for you is a problem." 

Mixed reaction

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi had a mixed reaction to Bill 29. Nenshi said a provision requiring candidates to donate unspent campaign funds over $1,000 to charity prevents incumbents from accumulating war chests that could give them an unfair advantage in the next election. 

Nenshi said he approves of the government's decision to remove the $4,000-per-donor cap as it was difficult for candidates to track. However, he says the limit should be $1,000 to $2,000 — much lower than the $5,000 proposed in the bill. He also wishes the government imposed a spending limit on third-party advertisers. 

Nenshi said he hoped the government reconsiders the provision that allows candidates to keep their donors a secret until after election day. 

"That is a massive regressive step backwards and without that being put back in I can't support this legislation as a whole," he said. 

Edmonton Coun. Andrew Knack said he is mystified by Madu's claim that removing the $4,000 cap imposed by the previous NDP government will make it easier for newcomers to unseat incumbents. 

Knack says the system proposed in Bill 29 is a throwback to the old rules. 

"The only difference is that it's now going to be the owner of the corporation or some of the leaders of the unions (making donations) versus the actual corporation or the actual union," Knack said. 

"So how does that level the playing field because we saw for many, many, many, many elections that the old model put a huge advantage to the incumbents." 

Brooks Mayor Barry Morishita, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, also has a mixed reaction to Bill 29's proposals. He has questions about the elimination of the disclosure requirement, which he feels can mitigate the impact of tying donation caps to candidates not the donors themselves. 

"Disclosure is a great way of keeping everyone on the same playing field," he said. 

Morishita says Municipal Affairs has told AUMA it is open to possible amendments. He says the AUMA board will discuss Bill 29 on Thursday.

With files from Natasha Riebe and Joel Dryden


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