Good for the goose, not for the gander: Critics charge bias, hypocrisy in new rules on municipal elections

Municipal elections in Alberta may become more transparent with the passage of a provincial bill which restricts the amount of money candidates at the local level will be allowed to raise and who they can raise it from, but not everyone is happy with the changes.

Bill 203, which passed third reading on May 23, limits campaign donations from any one organization to $5000 per candidate, defines the types of organizations that can donate and requires candidates to disclose all donors who contribute more than $500. It also requires that campaign surpluses must be carried forward to the next election, and if not used for re-election be put toward the municipality or a registered charity.

"We're not asking municipal candidates to do anything not required of us provincially," according to Jeff Johnson, the Conservative MLA for Athabasca-Redwater, who sponsored the bill.

While the bill in itself is a step forward for transparency—as many city councilors, union representatives and opposition parties have stated—union representatives are worried the limitation on organizational contributions might show a bias in favour of corporate donations.

"It would be a lot easier for businesses to get around the $5000 limit," explains Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"A union such as CUPE which represents a number of civic service workers would be limited to a $5000 contribution, even though they represent a number of different locals. A business could donate through several different corporate entities according to the definitions laid out."

McGowan says he's worried about the impact a business advantage may have on the next race for the mayor's seat.

"Mayoral elections are big-time political events that require significant budgets and so the legislation will have a big impact on the way mayoral campaigns are run," he argues. "If the rules aren't tightened up to the business and corporate sector, this bill may do the opposite of what it purports to want to do; we may inadvertently end up making it easier for businesses to influence government."

McGowan suggests the provincial government might actually have a specific interest in restricting contributions from unions and non-profit organizations.

"Traditionally, progressive groups have been a lot more successful electing candidates municipally and this bill may work to support more conservative candidates municipally," he suggests.
Speaking to the bill during debate in the legislature, NDP MLA Rachel Notley shared some of McGowan's concerns.

"You are putting rules in place, which I believe have merit, but then applying them differently to two different groups," Notley said, adding that the new rules will make it difficult for unions when it comes to deciding which candidate's campaign to support. "To suggest that local is part of the same local with a completely different employer somewhere else in the province where they've never discussed the merits of that particular candidate they can't coordinate whether it's better to give to Candidate A in Edmonton or Candidate B in Calgary, that is, I think, an onerous position to put these locals into."

Municipal candidates do not often receive individual donations upwards of $5000, but mayoral races in Calgary and Edmonton can be competitive contests running up high bills. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, for example, had a dozen donors over the $5000 limit in the last election.

But Johnson believes the bill won't have a major impact on municipal races given how rare large-sum donations are.

"We looked at the number and size of donations received and very few candidates were receiving donations above $5000," he says. "What it does do is clarify donations to the public and prevent undue influence."

But Larry Booi, the chair of Public Interest Alberta's Democracy Taskforce, which has for years called for campaign finance reform, says if the province is serious about preventing such influence it should start in its own backyard.

"It's hypocrisy," Booi says. "We're saying if it's a good idea to ensure democracy at a municipal level and in third party donations and advertising, why not clean up your own act? There was a lot of concern with the way the last Conservative leadership contest was run with very little in the way of accountability and restrictions on leadership donations. Look at the federal rules, which limit donations to leadership campaigns at $1100. It establishes that parties are not democracy-free zones, there are laws to ensure transparency and the public good."

Although the provincial rules for contributions to individual campaigns are the same as those approved in Bill 203, Booi maintains the province failed to recognize an opportunity to limit themselves.

"The big problems were not here. If this were a part of a comprehensive approach to make campaign finance more democratic you'd probably have people finding these things reasonable, but when you're telling unions they're restricted but you don't put any rules on yourself and in your own leadership contest and party then it looks like hypocrisy."

Vue Week, Thurs Jun 4 2009
Byline: Samantha Power

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