Potential weakening of Alberta election finance laws 'very concerning,' political scientist says

An Alberta government lawyer’s arguments in court last week clearly signal the United Conservative government intends to quietly weaken the province’s election finance law, a political scientist says, in a move that would be “very concerning.”

Further, Concordia University political scientist Elizabeth Smythe says Premier Jason Kenney’s statements about impending changes to the Alberta’s Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act don’t square with what his government’s lawyer told the court.

“I think the other shoe is going to drop but they don’t want it to drop right away,” Smythe said, adding the Kenney government is still facing blowback over its recent firing of the election commissioner.

“So I think it’s kind of campaign finance reform by stealth,” she said.

A CBC News reporter was present at a court hearing last week in which a lawyer for Alberta Justice unsuccessfully asked a judge to postpone a constitutional challenge of the election finance law, brought by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) and others. The CTF is challenging a fine it received for failing to register as a third-party advertiser. 

The UCP government is facing criticism for its recent firing of election commissioner Lorne Gibson (Terry Reith/CBC)

In a court application, the CTF says several amendments to the election finance law, passed by the former NDP government, infringe on the right to freedom of expression “by placing unjustifiable limits” on political contributions and expenditures, and advertising by nomination candidates and third parties.

At the hearing, the Justice lawyer, Nick Parker, said the government intends to rescind or amend part of the election finance act during the 2020 spring sitting of the legislature. Parker said these changes “will narrow the scope of this application, if not void it entirely.”

In response to questions from NDP Leader Rachel Notley in the legislature Tuesday, Kenney pointed to his party’s campaign promise to place a $30,000 cap on donations to political action committees (PACs) and prohibit groups formerly affiliated with political parties from running PACs.

But Smythe said the Justice lawyer’s remarks in court suggests the government’s amendments will go further and “loosen up the law.”

“I think a change that is perceived as weakening election finance laws and allowing for groups or organizations to intervene in elections in the name of free speech is very concerning,” she said.

In a brief media scrum Tuesday, Schweitzer would not comment on any specific planned changes for the Act. He said the government is considering public feedback, including from constituency associations who face an “immense burden” under the existing legislation.

“These are volunteer-driven organizations that quite often, sometimes only have five or ten thousand dollars in the bank, and they are provided with an immense amount of scrutiny,” he said.   

Previous reform was needed, expert says

The former NDP government banned corporate and union donations to political parties, placed a smaller cap on political donations by individuals, and instituted limits on spending by PACs in the months before an election.

University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young said those changes brought Alberta in line with other provinces and the federal government.

“Alberta had one of the less rigid and less restrictive sets of election laws,” said Young, an expert in election finance law. She said the province had a relatively high cap on individual political donations — $15,000 — and no limits on election campaign spending.

“I think it would be unfortunate to take apart the regulatory mechanisms that have been put in place,” Young said.

In the legislature Tuesday, Kenney suggested the NDP’s objections to election finance law changes are politically motivated.

“They don’t want us to limit their union buddies from spending millions of dollars in the campaign,” Kenney said.

But Young noted the UCP’s proposed $30,000 cap on donations to political action committees would shift the balance of power in PACs.

“Since there are more companies in Alberta than there are unions, this would disadvantage unions and create an advantage for corporations,” she said.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan says union donations to political campaigns “pale in comparison” to corporate donations. (Sam Martin/CBC)

At a news conference Tuesday, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the former NDP government’s election finance reforms revealed unions clearly weren’t the problem.

“You could see how much we spent on political action, as whole labour movement,” he said. “And it pales in comparison to what corporations and their surrogates spend every day.”

Controversial firing of election commissioner

The Kenney government is already facing intense criticism for firing the province’s election commissioner, Lorne Gibson, last week and shifting his mandate to the chief electoral officer.

The government has claimed Gibson could be rehired by the chief electoral officer and the consolidation of the offices will save $200,000 a year as part of its ongoing attempts to reduce the province’s deficit.

But critics called Gibson’s removal anti-democratic and an attempt to limit further political damage to the Kenney government. Gibson had already levied more than $200,000 in fines as part of his investigation into the so-called “kamikaze” UCP leadership campaign of Jeff Callaway.

Internal documents obtained by CBC News earlier this year show Kenney’s campaign collaborated with Callaway’s campaign, to run Callaway for the purpose of attacking Kenney’s main rival for the party leadership, Brain Jean. Despite what the documents show, Kenney and Callaway have denied their campaigns collaborated.

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