Province aims to curb election spending

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The provincial government has finally proposed changes to get big money out of politics.

The government took over and proposed the Fair Elections Financing Act, after a special committee struck to tackle the problem was plagued with infighting.

The act would limit individual contributions to $4,000 per person per year. The limit would “apply to any combination of parties, constituency associations, candidates, by-election candidates, leadership contestants and nomination contestants.”

“That was a number that came out of the committee,” Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken said. “The $4,000 was essentially a number that all parties were favourable to.”

But the Wildrose MLA does have some concerns with the $4,000 limit. He said the previous act had a separate party fund and a local constituency fund but with the changes they are both lumped together with the $4,000 cap. The NDP has a central funding model and the cap will be easy to regulate and enforce. Van Dijken says that all of the other parties in Alberta rely on their “constituency associations to engage the public at the local level” and this cap may weaken their constituency associations or pit constituency associations against the party in a fight for funds.

“There is a concern that it is the NDP government’s way of weakening the other parties,” van Dijken said.

This cap would replace the current maximum of $15,000 per person per year, which doubles to $30,000 in an election year.

As part of the spending limit, corporations, unions and employee organizations would be prevented from giving their employees paid time off to volunteer for a political campaign.

The bill would also limit spending by parties for the first time in Alberta’s history. Parties would be limited to $2 million in spending from the dropping of the writ to the closing of the polls on election day. The limit for individual candidate campaigns is set at $50,000.

Van Dijken is concerned that government spending on advertising is not capped during campaigns, as was recommended in the Special Select Ethics and Accountability Committee.

“One of the things that didn’t come out of this was government advertising, both during general campaigns and by-election campaigns,” van Dijken said. “There has been concerns in the past that the government is doing government advertising and government announcement during campaigns and nothing has been done to put a stop to that.”

Candidate travel costs related to the election, care for the candidate’s children, expenses related to a candidate’s living with a disability, audits or other fees necessary for compliance with the act and petty expenses by volunteers would be exempt from the spending limits.

Nomination contestants would be limited to $10,000 and leadership campaigns would have no spending limits but donations would be limited to $4,000.

Third-party advertisers would also see changes with the act. They would have to identify themselves in all political advertisements and all financial contributions would be disclosed on a database by Elections Alberta.

The act would limit third-party spending to $150,000 for the election cycle and no more than $3,000 could be used to support or oppose candidates in a particular constituency.

Between elections the third-parties would have to disclose contributions on a “sunshine list” if they hit a $1,000 threshold on political advertising, expenses or donations. Any weekly donations that exceed $250 must be disclosed in weekly reports to Elections Alberta.

Van Dijken says that he thinks the caps that are in place will just shift spending away from parties and into third party advertising.

“Another thing that is going to happen now that they have put limits on campaigns, we believe, is that we will see more political action groups starting in third party advertisers and these types of things that are prevalent in American elections and other provinces where third party advertising is a concern.”

Van Dijken says that these changes will be more difficult to monitor and expects the Alberta Elections budget to increase.

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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2016. She writes about municipal, provincial and federal politics; court and crime; general news and features.