Duane Bratt is a professor in the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
The role of big money in Canadian federal elections has not been a significant issue since the Jean Chrétien government brought in substantial limits on political donations in 2003. But it remains a problem at the provincial level.
Despite the pioneering efforts of the René Lévesque government in Quebec in 1977, several provinces still allow very large individual, corporate and union donations. This was highlighted in a series of recent scandals in both Ontario and British Columbia.
Alberta used to be one of the worst offenders. For example, in the last week of the 2012 provincial election, Daryl Katz, owner of Rexall Pharmacies and the Edmonton Oilers, gave the governing Progressive Conservatives a cheque for $430,000. This donation, which came in one cheque, was supposed to represent 17 individuals close to Mr. Katz.
The Katz donation became the symbol of everything that was wrong with the funding of elections in Alberta. When the NDP won the May, 2015, election it was determined to change the rules and modernize Alberta's campaign-finance laws. They were joined in this pledge by the official opposition Wildrose Party. Bill 1 – An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta – was passed in June, 2015, and banned corporate and union donations.
This was an uncontroversial first step (it passed with all-party support), but political observers wondered what further action would take place, whether the NDP-Wildrose partnership would continue legislating on this issue, and would the NDP continue to pursue the public interest or, instead, try to change the rules for partisan advantage.
In recent weeks, the NDP government has pursued several additional changes to Alberta's campaign-finance system. The Special Ethics and Accountability legislative committee, an all-party committee dominated by the NDP, passed three motions. The full Alberta legislature still has to debate and vote on each of these motions.
First, the committee recommended limiting political party spending on elections to 80 cents per eligible voter, which would amount to roughly $2.2-million. It also limited local candidate spending to between $40,000 and $60,000 per constituency, depending on its geographic size.
Second, the committee voted to provide a 50-per-cent rebate from the Alberta Treasury on all election spending from political parties that received more than 10 per cent of the vote.
Third, they limited spending on party leadership races. Elections Alberta already has jurisdiction during, but not before, party leadership races. But what the committee did was limit the amount of spending by individual candidates for a party leadership to 15 per cent of its new ceiling on party spending during a provincial election campaign. This would be roughly $330,000. This limit was put in because there have been candidates in previous party leadership races, exclusively the PCs, that have spent large sums of money.
For example, Jim Dinning, Ed Stelmach, Ted Morton, Gary Mar and Allison Redford all spent over a million dollars in their previous campaigns in 2006 and 2011. But the high-water mark was Jim Prentice, who spent $2.6-million in 2014 to win the PC leadership and premiership. Given the importance of party leadership races, it makes sense to establish some spending rules.
For the most part, the NDP efforts at campaign-finance reform have been in the public interest. Limits on both fundraising and spending makes sense for both general elections and party leadership races (even if we can quibble about the proper amounts). But the rebate of election spending, even if it occurs in other jurisdictions (including federally), has little to do with keeping big money out of politics. It is an illustration of the "party cartel" thesis that parties may collude to gain financial resources from the state, i.e., tax deductions for party contributions. The insistence on rebates overshadows the smarter moves that the NDP government has pursued on reforming campaign finance laws.
It would make more sense for the NDP to vote against the rebate proposal and instead focus on better ways of keeping big money out of politics which it, so far, has ignored. It could reduce the individual contribution limit from $15,000 ($30,000 in election years) down to something reasonable like the $1,500 limit that is used federally. In addition, it could extend the ban on corporate and union donations to municipal elections. Finally, and most importantly, it could stop government advertising in the pre-writ period before an election. For example, Manitoba has a 90-day blackout period on government advertising prior to an election.
These policy proposals would further the agenda of campaign finance reform without providing government subsidies of political parties.