Bill 81, which amends Alberta’s election rules, passed at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, during the final sitting of the province’s legislative session. The debate was raucous. In the end, the New Democrats and even some MLAs with the governing United Conservative Party voted against the new measures.
After the vote, Jason Nixon, the Government House Leader, declared Bill 81 a triumph of democracy. But critics have called the bill undemocratic – in part because, they say, it tacitly approves of political parties selling memberships in bulk and stifling free speech. Bill 81 also contains many other changes that will affect provincial politics.
Here’s what you need to you about what the new election law does, and why it has become so controversial.
Before Bill 81, if someone paid $50 or less for membership in an Alberta political party, that payment didn’t count toward the person’s annual limit for provincial political donations. In Alberta, that limit is $4,000, indexed to inflation. If the membership cost more than $50, the donor still got a pass on the $50, but the excess amount counted against the limit.
Bill 81 says that if a party supporter purchases memberships for other people, the price of those other memberships also count toward the buyer’s annual contribution limit.
Some critics say the bill tacitly authorizes people or organizations to buy party memberships for other people in bulk, with or without their consent.
A trio of dissident UCP members pushed unsuccessfully for Bill 81 to be altered so someone could not buy another person a party membership without the second person’s written consent. This would still have allowed for bulk membership purchases.
The UCP government believes it was already legal to purchase bulk memberships. The party argues that the bill does not alter the rules of membership buying, and that the only thing it has done is clarify the way membership fees are classified for donation-limit purposes.
Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer disagrees with this interpretation. Elections Alberta, in a bulletin last month, said existing legislation prevented individuals and third parties from buying memberships for others. When asked for clarification, Elections Alberta said it would provide more information later this week. This difference in interpretations of the law could lead to a court challenge.
The argument over membership rules is a throwback to the UCP’s origins, and Premier Jason Kenney’s challengers believe it could have implications for the party’s coming review of Mr. Kenney’s leadership.
The RCMP continue to investigate whether Mr. Kenney’s team cheated in the UCP’s inaugural leadership race in 2017. The Premier’s critics allege his supporters stuffed the electronic ballot box by voting with e-mail addresses they controlled but had linked to other people’s names. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Mr. Kenney’s critics within the UCP worry the Premier will find a way to use bulk purchasing to manipulate the outcome of his leadership review, which is set to take place in April, 2022.
“They saw the opportunity to use this legislation as a way to get an upper hand in the internal power struggle within the party,” said Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary.
Mr. Nixon, in a news conference Wednesday, argued that it is not the state’s place to intervene in the workings of political parties, which are private organizations.
“What do we do next? Start to interfere with the membership process of cross-country ski groups or the local fish and game club, or the local church? Of course not,” he said.
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, scoffed at this logic. “There is a clear link between a political party and forming government. If I become president of the ski club, I don’t get to become premier of the province.”
The UCP said that its own bylaws say people can only buy memberships for themselves, their spouses, or their own minor children. But skeptics have said that bylaws can be changed, or ignored.
Alberta caps individual political donations at $4,000 a year, indexed to inflation. This previously included donations to parties, constituency associations, candidates in general elections and candidates vying for nominations. Bill 81 removes nomination races from the aggregate list. Now, people can donate $4,000 a year in nomination races on top of the annual $4,000 cap on other political contributions.
This change effectively doubles the province’s donation cap, which was originally designed to limit the influence of wealthy people. The higher cap favours the UCP, which has wealthier supporters than the NDP.
The UCP originally proposed unlimited donations in nomination races, but the party abandoned that idea after legislative wrangling.
Mr. Kenney campaigned on a promise to close what the UCP called the “AFL loophole” in the province’s election finance laws. The Alberta Federation of Labour controls two seats on the NDP’s provincial council. The UCP argued this arrangement, which is part of the NDP’s structure, means the AFL is essentially a branch of the left-leaning party.
The UCP has said the AFL should therefore not be permitted to operate as a third-party political advertiser, because third-party status allows it to skirt the financing and spending laws that apply to political parties.
Critics argue the UCP is using legislation to crack down on its chief opponent, which is currently raising more money than the governing party.
“No one cared until the NDP won an election in Alberta,” Prof. Bratt said.
Under Bill 81, third-party advertisers that the Chief Electoral Officer considers “affiliated” with a registered party are banned. The bill says the officer, when weighing whether a third party is affiliated with a registered political party, shall “consider all relevant information,” including any overlap between the two organizations’ chief financial officers and signing officers, any “interactions or agreements” between the two, and the extent to which the third party participates in the decision-making process of the political party, pursuant to the political party’s constitution or founding documents.
Experts say there are reasonable arguments to be made both for and against banning the AFL from being a third-party advertiser. But setting aside the appropriateness of shutting out the AFL, the wording of this section of Bill 81 makes some observers nervous. Phrases such as “interactions or agreements” are vague. The UCP is counting on the Chief Electoral Officer to use common sense. Critics argue an incompetent or corrupt officer could abuse this power.
“I think this is poor drafting,” Prof. Young said. “It just gives so much discretion to the Chief Electoral Officer about who can and can’t speak during an election. And I don’t think it is appropriate.”
The bill locks in a set election day: the last Monday in May, four years after the previous election. (No, it will never fall on Victoria Day.) It also bans foreign money from political advertising in the province, although there is no evidence of problematic international influence on Alberta elections.
The bill bans unions and corporations from donating to third-party election advertisers. And it caps donations to third-party political and election advertisers at a combined $30,000 per eligible donor. This sparked fury, with opponents arguing the high limit could give wealthy donors undue influence.
Previously, under rules set by the NDP, there were no limits.
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