Alberta is overhauling parts of its election-financing laws, boosting fines for illegal donations and removing a gag order on its chief electoral officer – but doing little to rein in the influence of major donors.
Bill 7, tabled Tuesday, doesn’t change the limit on donations to political parties ($30,000 during an election year, well above most other jurisdictions), continues to allow corporate and union donations, doesn’t cap party spending and doesn’t clarify the law on donation splitting, where one person’s cheque is apportioned into donations from several people. It also doesn’t grant the chief electoral officer any new investigative powers.
All told, it leaves Alberta dead last nationally on elections financing, critics say.
“It’s still the Wild West when it comes to campaign-finance rules,” said Bill Moore-Kilgannon of Public Interest Alberta, an advocacy group that says Alberta’s laws fall well short of other provinces. “It’s a misstep. It’s not addressing the fundamental concerns that I think many Albertans have about big money controlling politics in this province.”
The changes do little to alter the status quo. For example, The Globe and Mail reported billionaire Daryl Katz wrote a single $430,000 cheque to the governing Progressive Conservative party during this year’s spring election. It made up more than a quarter of the party’s election fundraising and receipts were issued to several entities with ties to Mr. Katz.
The proposed law would make it illegal to accept a donation if you “know or ought to know” it would put a person over the limit. But that change was characterized as routine and “not related to Katz” by a spokesman for Justice Minister Jonathan Denis.
Instead, the proposed law offers no clarity on whether single, large cheques are within the rules or not, with Mr. Denis saying no changes are needed. “We have a process here that works,” he said.
Critics, though, say the system is totally broken.
“We also need to see some language closing the Katz loophole,” Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said. “There’s still the opportunity for people to donate well in excess of the $30,000.”
Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman said the bill “does nothing to address the issues that have been clearly proven” around controversial donations. New Democrat Rachel Notley, a lawyer, said her party wasn’t even asked about changes. “I have no doubt the PCs were consulted,” she said.
The proposed law would raise the maximum fine for an illegal donation to $10,000 from $1,000, still well below other jurisdictions. It would require the chief electoral officer to publicize findings when he issues a fine or letter of reprimand (previously, he was barred from doing do, and dozens of cases remain hidden). The CEO may also look into and publicize donations going back up to three years.
The law includes some uncontroversial changes, such as making it easier for students to vote and expanding the list of public agencies barred from making donations. It also requires donation lists to be released during party leadership races, which previously had no rules, and requires robo-calls during an election campaign to identify their sponsor.
But critics say the big issues remain unchanged, says Stephen Garvey, executive director of the Calgary-based Foundation for Democratic Advancement, which ranks Alberta’s election-financing laws the worst in Canada. “It seems pretty cosmetic to me,” he said.