Until the surprise election of Rachel Notley's NDP government last year, Alberta was part of the wild west of Canadian election finance law. Between it and British Columbia, voters in the two provinces could contribute vast sums of cash to political parties' election campaigns, to their candidates and to their leadership nominees. Corporations and unions were welcome to give, too, and did they ever.
Ms. Notley put an end to that in Alberta with the first law her new government adopted in 2015. Bill 1 banned donations from corporations and unions. But it kept individual donations high – as much as $30,000 to a party during an election campaign (B.C. has no upper limit). Ms. Notley wanted time to examine further amendments, most notably ones to lower individual limits and to set new spending caps on election campaigns and leadership campaigns.
An all-party committee was looking into just that this summer when Jason Kenney rode into town and announced he was running for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party. His stated goal is to unite his party with the Wildrose Party in a common effort to unite the right and defeat the NDP, and he is counting on his high profile as a former federal Conservative cabinet minister and his 19 years as an MP from Calgary to pull off this ambitious coup.
Well-liked and well-connected, Mr. Kenney has been raising money and campaigning since the PC party officially called the leadership contest on June 30. He is hoping to build an insurmountable lead by the time the formal campaign begins in October and before other candidates join the race.
While there are (very high) limits on how much Mr. Kenney can raise from each individual donor, neither the PC Party nor provincial law place any limits the spending of leadership candidates. If Mr. Kenney can raise it, he can spend it. The party will elect its new leader on March 18 of next year, which means Mr. Kenney has oodles to time to pass the hat.
This has left the NDP feeling rather uncomfortable. Suddenly it is facing an existential threat in the form of the hard-charging Mr. Kenney. Ms. Notley is surely kicking herself for moving slowly on finance reform. You could hear her frustration plainly last week when her government lamely attempted to get Elections Alberta to investigate whether Mr. Kenney's early fundraising violated Alberta law, on the grounds that the PC leadership race hasn't formally begun.
Elections Alberta replied that there is nothing it can do because Mr. Kenney doesn't have to register as a leadership candidate until October, and until then he falls outside of its jurisdiction.
Then, out of the blue on Monday, the legislative assembly's all-party committee on election finance reform adopted a recommendation to limit spending on party leadership races to about $330,000.
You could see the steam coming out of Mr. Kenney's ears. He accused the NDP of orchestrating the doings of the committee in a bid to hamstring his campaign. Given that it is an all-party committee, the accusation doesn't entirely add up. Nor is it clear that the government would try to apply the committee's recommendation retroactively to Mr. Kenny's campaign.
But Mr. Kenny is nonetheless worried. He wants to outspend his opponents – he doesn't want to be limited in a fundraising and spending competition with other, less well-known candidates, because he would lose his natural advantage.
He points out that neither the federal government nor any of the provinces limit spending by candidates during party leadership races. "Political parties come from civil society – they're not creatures of the state," says Mr. Kenney.
True – but only up to a point. Political parties are indeed subject to legislated limits in Ottawa and in most of the provinces on the size of donations they can accept and how much they can spend during election campaigns. The size of donations to party leadership candidates is also limited.
The only political spending that universally doesn't have legislated limits in Canada is the money spent by those seeking a party's leadership. And that is troubling for many in this country who do not agree that party leaderships should go to those who can spend the most.
Canada's Chief Electoral Officer recommended as far back as 2001 that there be limits on leadership campaign spending to ensure "a level playing field for contestants." Former PC Alberta premier Ed Stelmach promised to address the same issue after he raised $1.1-million for his successful leadership campaign in 2006 (even keeping the names of some of his donors private).
He never got round to fixing the problem, and in 2014 Jim Prentice spent $2.6-million to become party leader. The runner-up spent $484,029.
Mr. Kenney's tactics in Alberta this summer are worrying to some in the PC Party. The president, Katherine O'Neill, told The Globe that members have called her to say they think the race should be formally declared immediately, so Elections Alberta can start monitoring Mr. Kenney's donations. There are real concerns that other candidates won't join the race if they feel Mr. Kenney has been allowed too much of a headstart and can outspend any and all opponents.
All this to say that Alberta is right to be considering setting spending limits on party leadership campaigns. Other provinces and the federal government should, too. It makes no sense to have donation and spending caps in general elections, but a spending free-for-all in the internal party campaigns that decide who will be leading a party into an election. We don't want a system where leadership candidates with the biggest bank accounts have an unfair advantage.
Mr. Kenney is Alberta's last political cowboy, riding the unlegislated range and free to raise money and spend it as he pleases. It's understandable if he doesn't want the status quo to change. The rest of us should feel somewhat differently.