Alberta PCs Plan Overhaul of Election Finance Law

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Media Appearances

Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives will introduce changes to Alberta's election finance law this week, with opposition parties and critics calling for lower donation limits and a cap on campaign spending.

Small changes to the legislation had been planned for several months but news of the $430,000 cheque from Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz to the Conservatives late in Alberta's spring election sparked debate about much larger changes. The province's finance rules are the most lax in Canada, with a donation limit of $30,000 and no ceiling on spending.

The new legislation could be introduced Monday and the NDP have called for the donation limit to be slashed 90 per cent to $3,000 – which would still be about three times the federal limit. The NDP also wants corporate and union donations banned, like the federal law, and a spending cap of $1-million.

The opposition Wildrose Party hasn't called for specific changes but believes the Conservatives may be planning a "significant rewrite" of the rules, said Vitor Marciano, a Wildrose spokesman.

"Until we see it, we really don't know what we're facing," he said.

Since The Globe and Mail reported in October that Mr. Katz gave $430,000 to the Conservatives, and the cheque was split up in the names of family and close associates for receipt purposes, numerous voices across the political spectrum have urged change in Alberta. The donation amounted to about one-third of all the money the Conservatives raised.

Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary professor who has worked for Wildrose and the federal Conservatives, has called Alberta's election finance law "embarrassing … the fiscal foundation of the one-party system." The Frontier Centre of Public Policy argued for more transparency. The Parkland Institute wants the donation limit slashed to something like the federal limit of about $1,100.

"I think the Conservatives are going to be forced politically to change the law," said Keith Brownsey, political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. "What makes sense for the Premier politically is to reduce the donation limit."

Almost three weeks ago, Alberta's chief electoral officer said he would investigate the $430,000 donation from Mr. Katz. It is unclear how that probe will unfold. Even though there is a $30,000 limit, there are some cases where splitting a larger cheque into separate receipts is allowed. However, lawyers and other commentators say exceeding the stated limit while divvying up a cheque clearly violates the spirit of the law.

The investigation has started very slowly. Elections Alberta has not yet made any requests of the Progressive Conservative party, according to party executive director Kelley Charlebois.

Elections Alberta has the power to seize anything they need from the Conservatives, including documents, e-mails, and bank records. The Conservatives have said they will co-operate.

It can also request information from Mr. Katz, his family, and his associates, but it is unclear if they are legally obligated to submit to the investigation.

Ms. Redford has promised to make the result of the investigation public once it is concluded.

The investigation is being conducted by Brian Fjeldheim, the chief electoral officer who first held the job from 1998 through 2005, and was close with Premier Ed Stelmach, the two of them coming from the same town. Mr. Fjeldheim returned to his post when Mr. Stelmach was premier, after a committee led by the Conservatives in March, 2009, did not renew the contract of chief electoral officer Lorne Gibson, who had come from Manitoba.

Mr. Gibson was more aggressive than Mr. Fjeldheim, and had made almost 200 recommendations for changes after the 2008 election that saw Mr. Stelmach win. Among the recommendations were lower donation limits and a spending cap.

The length of the investigation of the Katz donation is difficult to gauge, said Mr. Gibson in an interview. "Depends on how accessible the records are, or if there's stonewalling," he said. "Often, when lawyers get involved on both sides, it can slow the process."