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Opinion Fiscal foundations of Alberta’s one-party state

This newspaper has reported that, during Alberta's spring election, Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz wrote a single cheque to the Progressive Conservatives for $430,000, an amount that was then divided up among people and organizations close to Mr. Katz for receipt purposes (the individual contribution limit in an election year is $30,000). After some initial resistance, Premier Alison Redford agreed to an opposition demand that Elections Alberta conduct an investigation.

Legalities aside, this episode should prompt a review of Alberta's embarrassing electoral finance laws, which are the fiscal foundation of the one-party system that has existed since 1971. To level the political playing field and remove suspicions of undue influence, all other jurisdictions in Canada have adopted some combination of strict limits on the size of personal donations; prohibition of corporate and union contributions; campaign spending limits; and campaign rebates, sometimes accompanied by other subsidies, to political parties.

The only such measure that Alberta has adopted is a limit of $15,000 a year for personal and corporate contributions, raised to $30,000 in an election year. And this "limit" is interpreted very loosely, so a donor can give the maximum not only in his own name but also through any or all companies that he controls.

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The Conservatives' failure to adopt modern regulations for political party financing underpins Alberta's one-party state. As the governing party, they have had almost unlimited access to corporate and high-end personal donations. Before 2012, they always outspent all other parties together by a large margin. The opposition parties, meanwhile, would borrow whatever they could to run underfinanced campaigns, then spend the next four years trying to climb out of debt, without the assistance of campaign rebates or other public support.

This year, however, the Wildrose Party broke the Conservatives' financial monopoly by combining appeals to the business community with unprecedented (for Alberta) efforts at attracting small donors, thus raising twice as much as the Conservatives during the campaign. Yet, the effects of the past could not be erased. The Conservatives had so much money in the bank before the election started, or perhaps such a good credit rating, that they could still outspend Wildrose by 50 per cent – $4.7-million to $3.1-million.

More important, the Conservatives kept themselves in power by siphoning support from the Liberals, whose vote share dropped from 26 per cent in 2008 to 10 per cent in 2012. Many factors were involved in the Liberal collapse, but lack of money was surely a key one. Weakened from years of indebtedness, the Liberals spent only $150,000 in this year's election campaign, hardly what one would expect from a party that had been the Official Opposition when the writ was dropped.

Even though one opposition party, Wildrose, was able to play in 2012 on an almost level field with the Conservatives, the latter survived, at least in part, because of the financial weakness of the other opposition parties. Alberta's regime of election financing continues to prop up the one-party state.

Given that Alberta's Conservatives have profited so much from the one-party system and fiscal monopoly they've created, one would not expect reform to come from them. But Ms. Redford has been shoved on other issues, so the opposition parties might get some results if they keep on pushing. If not, Mr. Katz's contribution will figure prominently in the next election campaign.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. He managed the 2012 Wildrose election campaign.

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