Review law on campaign finance

When the business of politics is at its most cutthroat - which is to say during an election campaign - does a politician get what he or she pays for, negotiates or deserves?

The developing case of Gary Mar continues to provide conflicting answers to that question and also affords an opportunity to debate the pros and cons of Alberta's party campaign-finance laws.

The Mar team spent $2.7 million in an attempt to win him the Progressive Conservative leadership race but he finished second and literally out of the money - $260,000 in the hole, to be exact. Premier Ali-son Redford's campaign spent half what Mar's did, yet she will be leading the PCs into a looming election, after first dealing with a number of nagging issues, which is where Mar re-enters the picture.

He has been placed by Redford on unpaid leave as Alberta's envoy to Asia because of concerns the premier had regarding a fundraising dinner held March 1 to pay off Mar's campaign debt. The original invitations to the event alluded to Mar's new posting, possibly leaving the impression that contributors to the fundraiser were supporting a government representative rather than a debt-laden campaign. Though the invitations were amended, it was too late. The ethical questions, and red flags, had already been raised. Alberta's ethics commissioner will investigate.

The incident opens a window into the issue of Alberta's legislation regarding leadership campaign spending. Redford's relatively affordable win over Mar and four other candidates would suggest that a post as important as party leader can-not be bought merely by spending twice as much as a credible rival. The electorate in such elections is highly motivated - they are party members after all - and may be less susceptible than some members of the general public to the influence of costly media campaigns.

Is there a need then to cap the amount that can be raised and spent by a party leadership candidate? Or is the nature of those races different enough from general elections not to worry about it?

Certainly, the current rule that caps an individual's contribution at a generous $30,000 is out of step with the federal party limit of just $1,100. Might donors of $30,000 look at their contribution as an investment that ought to pay dividends? Should the limit be halved? Quartered?

The number can be debated, so too the fact that contributions from corporations and unions are allowed in Alberta races - and capped at $30,000 - but are not allowed federally. There is also a troubling lack of transparency in the process, illustrated by PC leadership candidate Rick Orman who chose to forfeit his $15,000 deposit to the PC Association in lieu of divulging a list of campaign contributors.

It's acceptable practice under cur-rent law. It's also the precise kind of behaviour that has earned politics its reputation as a secretive business and should not be allowed.

Edmonton Journal, Tues Mar 13 2012

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