Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is pushing back on Opposition NDP claims that his new referendum bill is a backdoor attempt to unfairly influence debate during elections and bring big money back into politics.
“I just find it completely bizarre that anyone would characterize this [bill] as being undemocratic or, as the Opposition has said, a power grab, when in fact this is the exact opposite,” Mr. Kenney said Wednesday.
“This is not aggregating power to the government, but giving power to the people. There is nothing more democratic than this.”
Mr. Kenney made the comments a day after his government introduced the referendum bill along with legislation to amend Senator-in-waiting elections.
He has already promised referendums to get a mandate to fight with Ottawa over changes to equalization payments and potentially one if his government decides it makes financial sense to abandon the Canada Pension Plan.
The bill would give cabinet the power to determine which issues could go to vote, how the question would be worded, when the votes would be held and whether the results would be binding.
The bill also proposes to allow third-party advertisers to spend up to $500,000 to influence public opinion on the issue at hand. Those advertisers would only have to file audited financial statements if they spend more than $350,000.
Currently, third-party advertisers can spend only $150,000 during a provincial election campaign.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the $500,000 ceiling along with reporting exemptions below $350,000 means deep pockets can be used to sway voter opinion, something her government took out while it was in power by lowering contribution limits.
Ms. Notley said the bill clears the way for Mr. Kenney to abuse it.
“He will be able to take an issue right out of the UCP campaign strategy book and invite literally hundreds of third-party organizations to spend half-a-million dollars each on those issues, potentially during the [provincial] election campaign,” she said.
“If they’re supersneaky, they can get away without filing auditable [financial] reports if they only spend $349,000 each.
“This is classic American-style campaigning, corrupting our system.”
Mr. Kenney disagreed, saying Alberta’s referendum bill is similar to rules in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and other jurisdictions.
He challenged Ms. Notley’s assertion that $500,000 is excessive, adding that modern campaigns are expensive.
“While it is legitimate to have a spending limit, it has to be a reasonable limit,” he said.
“You could not have a real democratic debate on an important issue through a referendum campaign if the limit were five, 10, 50,000 dollars. Groups could not effectively communicate with millions of Albertans.”
He said the bill is part of broader democratic reform agenda, which will include coming citizen-initiated referendums and recall legislation later this year.
Mr. Kenney also accused the NDP of hypocrisy, wanting big money out of politics but being okay with millions of dollars being spent on third party-advertising by its union supporters.
“That’s just a loophole, where in this case one party is using an affiliate to do its advertising for them,” Mr. Kenney said.
Mr. Kenney said his government will introduce legislation this fall banning formal affiliates of registered political parties from operating as third-party advertisers.