Tories eye election reform: Stelmach government accused of silencing dissent

EDMONTON - The Alberta government is considering changes to campaign finance laws that would effectively mute groups such as Albertans for Change, which ran high-priced attack ads during the March election, says Premier Ed Stelmach.

The legislation would also bring party leadership races under the umbrella of campaign finance laws, a move that was loudly demanded by critics during the 2006 Tory leadership campaign.

Stelmach said he would like to introduce the legislation as a package this fall. He was unclear if the legislation would ban third-party spending or simply put limits on it.

"It's something that really piqued my curiosity during this last campaign, though I believe the strategy backfired on whoever came up with the idea," Stelmach said of the campaign.

Albertans for Change was a union-backed effort that ran splashy election advertising attacking the government's record. The ominous voice accusing Stelmach of having "no pla-a-a-a-n" was easily the most recognizable refrain of the campaign.

The exact cost of the ads -- which were supported by the Alberta Building Trades Council, the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the United Nurses of Alberta -- has never been made fully clear, but estimates have pegged it at more than $2 million, more than double the NDP and Liberal budgets combined.

AFL president Gil McGowan accused Stelmach and the Conservatives of trying to muzzle opponents with the new laws. "This is a disturbing development and it doesn't bode well for democracy in this province," McGowan said. "He's just trying to shut down the voice of the labour movement as a voice of dissent on the left."

NDP Leader Brian Mason said it's unfair that unions could outspend his party on TV ads by a more than 10-to-one margin.

"The main conversation that took place in the election was not between the opposition parties and the government -- it was between Albertans for Change and the government," Mason said. "And I think that had a serious impact on the election."

Mason, who has pushed for new campaign finance laws, wants Stelmach to ban corporate and union donations and implement a system of public campaign financing, as the federal government and some provinces have done.

Stelmach has shown little enthusiasm for the idea.

Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said the Albertans for Change ads may have hurt his party.

"We had nothing to do with that spending whatsoever," Taft said. "And yet, on the doorsteps, we were often getting lectures about how 'You guys are running those terrible attack ads on Ed Stelmach.' So we got dragged into it."

While Albertans for Change was essentially delivering the same message as his party, Taft said their involvement could set an ugly precedent.

"I mean, they've opened the door now. What's to prevent next time any group from advancing all kinds of extreme views? I think we have to think that through."

Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch, said Alberta remains a laggard in Canada in implementing election campaign finance reforms.

He praised the province for considering limits on third-party advertising, which the Supreme Court has said is constitutional.

Federal rules cap the total amount of third-party spending at roughly $172,500 for national campaigns.

Conacher, like Mason, also called for a ban on union and corporate donations.

"If you believe in one person, one vote, you should be limiting what any one person can spend in politics," Conacher said.

Stelmach and his Tory leadership opponents faced strong criticism for not disclosing all the donors to their campaigns, which under current laws they were under no obligation to do.

Some candidates, including current cabinet minister Ted Morton and former minister Lyle Oberg, have never disclosed any of their backers.

Stelmach also came under attack -- and was investigated by Alberta's ethics commissioner -- for offering "exclusive" access to people willing to pay $5,000 to attend private soirees that were intended to raise money to pay off leadership debts. Stelmach quickly cancelled the private receptions after they were reported by the media.

"Alberta has the best provincial premier in government that secret money can buy," Conacher quipped. "That's both undemocratic and unethical."

With the Liberals and NDP facing possible upcoming leadership races, the timing of Stelmach's changes come at a politically opportune time.

"I don't plan on going anywhere for the next four years," Stelmach said. "But others may."

Edmonton Journal, Fri May 9 2008
Byline: Archie McLean, with files from Jason Markusoff

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