Tories planning to update campaign finance rules

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, Premier Ed Stelmach said.

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

Stelmach said he wants to introduce the legislation this fall, however he was unclear on whether 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 ads.

Albertans for Change was a union-backed effort that ran splashy election advertising attacking the Stelmach government's record.

The cost of the ads is still unknown but estimates peg it at more than $2 million, or more than double the NDP and Liberal budgets combined.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan accused the Conservatives of trying to muzzle its 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."

McGowan said the timing of the move smacks of political opportunism, not of a real desire for reform.

But NDP Leader Brian Mason said it's unfair the unions could outspend his party on TV ads by more than a 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 hard for new campaign finance laws, also wants Stelmach to ban corporate and union donations and implement a system of public campaign financing like the federal government and some provinces.

Stelmach has shown little enthusiasm for the idea.

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

"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," said Taft.

Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Ottawa-based Democracy Watch, said Alberta remains a laggard in implementing election campaign finance reforms. He praised the province for considering a ban on third party ads.

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.

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

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