Alberta’s Wildrose Party is joining its fellow opposition members in calling for a ban on corporate and union donations.
The changes would overhaul Alberta’s weak election laws, but that’s not the only motive – they would also hurt fundraising by the governing Progressive Conservatives, who quickly dismissed the changes.
Wildrose’s Monday proposal came a week after the PCs introduced election-financing changes in Bill 7, widely panned as toothless. They preserve the generous $30,000 contribution limit, allow corporate donations and don’t clarify rules on single, large donations – such as a $430,000 cheque written by Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz to the PC party and then divided among several entities.
The Liberals and New Democrats have, for years, pressed for a ban on corporate and union donations. Wildrose is now on board, saying the individual donation limit in an election year should be $10,000 and the “Katz loophole” closed, Leader Danielle Smith said. “We are calling on the government to make substantial election law reform a key part of this bill,” she said.
It’s a low-risk bet. Had Wildrose’s proposed changes been in place during the spring election, the party would have lost at least $875,000 of its $3.1-million in fundraising, or 28 per cent. The PCs, meanwhile, would have lost at least 78 per cent, including most of Mr. Katz’s cheque. The NDP would have lost at least 39 per cent, the Liberals at least 59 per cent.
Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said Wildrose can propose the changes as amendments to Bill 7. That’s effectively a shut door, as the PC majority would likely vote changes down. Further, the bill doesn’t actually modify donation limits or deal with corporate or union bans, so Wildrose lawyers don’t believe amendments can, either – its hands are tied. “We do think the PC government is purposefully opening up Alberta’s election laws just a crack in order to prevent us making the sweeping changes we need to make,” Ms. Smith said.
The battle comes amid an uproar over elections financing. Chief Electoral Officer Brian Fjeldheim, who is investigating the Katz donation, was under fire Friday, accused of being a PC sympathizer. His office made 101 recommendations that formed the base of Bill 7, sending them in August to Justice Minister Jonathan Denis and others, but not the opposition – even when asked a month later. Without them, opposition parties were blindsided by Bill 7.
“I am very concerned about your understanding of your role.You are not an officer of the Minister of Justice, you are an officer of this assembly,” New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley told Mr. Fjeldheim during a committee meeting, asking him “how it is we cannot have some concern about the independence of your office?”
He dismissed concerns, saying, “Yes, I am independent,” and casting the oversight as an administrative error. Opposition members didn’t accept that.
“It’s either a staggering lack of professionalism, or it was deliberate,” Liberal Laurie Blakeman said. “And I can’t actually tell you which one of those it is. Does either side cause me great concern? Yes it does. This guy’s supposed to be making sure that all elections are fair for any party, any person that wants to run in Alberta.”
Mr. Fjeldheim has also never recommended an illegal donation for prosecution in his current role, opposition MLAs say. He was the province’s long-time Chief Electoral Officer before retiring. His successor, Lorne Gibson, did recommend cases for prosecution. Then justice minister, now Premier Alison Redford declined to prosecute. Mr. Gibson’s contract wasn’t renewed, Mr. Fjeldheim was lured back and Mr. Gibson sued. “The fact that they haven’t done those prosecutions says to me they just want to keep on going and doing things the same old way,” Ms. Smith said Monday.
Mr. Denis acknowledged he got special access to Mr. Fjeldheim’s work. Asked about opposition claims that the practice is unfair, he replied: “What’s your point?”