Under the guise of "getting the big money out of politics," Alberta's NDP government is methodically changing the province's election campaign rules to give itself the best possible chance the next time around.
After winning power in 2015, the NDP quickly brought in legislation to prohibit corporate and union donations to political parties. All parties in the legislature, even the Progressive Conservatives, voted for this measure; but it was in fact a devastating blow to the PCs because, after living for decades on corporate money, they had failed to build a modern machine for grassroots fundraising. That the NDP gave up union donations appeared to balance the scales, even though the amount of money foregone was much smaller than what the Tories will lose by being cut off from corporate financing.
Having occupied the moral high ground while pushing the PCs into penury, the NDP is now proposing rules that will undercut the other parties' chances in the next campaign. Using the ironically titled Legislative Committee on Ethics and Accountability, on which it holds a majority of seats, the NDP is proposing to introduce campaign rebates of 50 per cent of the money spent by parties and candidates, as now exist in federal politics. This seems neutral on its face; but to qualify for a rebate, a party will have to get at least 10 per cent of the popular vote, whereas the federal threshold is only 2 per cent. The 10 per cent criterion will almost surely prevent the NDP's rivals on the left – the Liberals, the Alberta Party, and the Greens (should they attempt to re-enter provincial politics) from qualifying, while allowing both Wildrose and the PCs to count on a rebate. This is crucial to the NDP plan, because they can only win with the support of an undivided left against a divided right.
Additionally, the NDP also wants to introduce campaign spending limits, which also exist federally. Its first proposed limit was $1.6-million, about what it spent in 2015, although that has now been raised to $2.1-million. With weak grassroots fundraising, the PCs may have trouble raising this much, but Wildrose has raised more in the past and can probably do it again. Another masterstroke: keep both right-wing parties financially able to compete, but put a limit on the one that now has greater fundraising capacity.
Seeing what the NDP is doing does not reveal the whole picture; you also have to look at what they are not doing. They are not setting any limits on government advertising, which they have already undertaken on a grand scale under the heading of communicating government policy to voters. And they are not going to prevent organizations, i.e., labour unions, from loaning workers to political parties during campaigns.
Most significantly, they're not setting limits on third-party advertising, which the unions have used so effectively in Ontario to keep the Liberals in power and the PCs out. The Alberta NDP is a government of, by, and for the unions. Most cabinet ministers are connected to public service unions as members, employees, or contractors. In spite of Alberta's dire financial predicament, the government is avoiding any belt-tightening for the public service. It's not hard to predict whom the unions will support in the next election, and the government is leaving them the perfect opening to use their financial muscle.
It's a cunning and well-executed strategy. "Getting the big money out of politics" is a perfect catchphrase to divert media attention. Having NDP backbenchers rather than ministers introduce the changes piecemeal in committee makes it harder for observers to see the whole picture – and, as the philosopher Hegel wrote, in one of his clearer dicta, "The truth is the whole."
Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.