Rules for third-parties? Yes please, say two ex-mayors

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Two former mayors have given a thumbs-up to a provincial proposal to rein in third-party advertising during municipal elections.

Alberta Municipal Affairs launched an online survey and discussion paper last week on proposed changes to the Local Authorities Election Act.

The province started a review of the act (which regulates municipal elections) in 2016 and came up with several proposed changes, but didn’t implement them prior to the 2017 municipal election. Those changes are now up for consideration and would apply to the 2021 election if enacted.

The province lays out many potential reforms in the survey and its accompanying discussion paper, including limits on third-party advertising.

While electoral candidates are currently subject to strict limits on what they can spend in campaigns, third parties are not. The province is proposing to have third parties register their identities, issue spending reports, and stay within a spending cap during municipal elections – all rules that already apply for provincial ones.

Former St. Albert mayor Nolan Crouse said he would be thrilled if the province reined in third parties, which were a growing influence in municipal elections.

“It’s happening in Alberta and it’s got to be dealt with.”

Third-party rules

The 2013 St. Albert election featured numerous newspaper ads, billboards, and flyers bought by the St. Albert Think Tank – a semi-anonymous group that opposed Crouse and promoted specific candidates.

“They were running ads saying, ‘vote for these people,’” Crouse said, but apart from Gord Hennigar, who eventually stepped forward as a spokesperson, the people behind those ads never revealed their identities and never disclosed what they spent.

This isn’t a big deal if it’s just a few thousand bucks, but when you get powerful interests involved, such as when Envision Edmonton tried to sway Edmonton’s vote on the City Centre Airport, the dollars spent on political ads can be huge, Crouse said.

“Those ads influence an election.”

The 2017 election saw a substantial number of third party ads, many of which criticized then-Sturgeon County mayor Tom Flynn.

“They were out to undermine our campaign,” Flynn said, and used misleading information to galvanize support for his opponents.

“That kind of stuff is not controlled the way it needs to be,” he said, although he was not sure what controls would be appropriate.

Other changes

Crouse said he supported the province’s idea of lowering the cap on campaign contributions to $4,000 per donor per year from the current $5,000 per candidate per year (which, over a four-year term, would let a person give $20,000 to a candidate).

“It doesn’t allow the millionaires to buy a seat,” he said of the limits, and it keeps the spending playing field more level.

In an email, Mayor Cathy Heron said she favoured the province’s proposal to ban corporate and union donations from municipal elections (they’re already banned in provincial ones), but only if people got tax credits for campaign contributions like they currently do in provincial elections.

“This will cost the province some money, but to be fair if they are worried about the money then they should abolish the tax credit for provincial election contributions, which is much greater. Either we both get it or we both don’t.”

Flynn opposed a proposal to allow people who live in a municipality to vote on voting day without also having lived in Alberta for the previous six months. While the six-months requirement was recently dropped for provincial elections, he said the smaller voting pool of municipal ones raises the risk of someone trying to swing an election by having a bunch of out-of-province supporters move into their house on election day to vote for a specific candidate.

The province was also considering rules on cellphone use in voting stations. Scholars have raised concerns that the recent trend of “voting selfies” could impact the secrecy of people’s votes.

The survey runs until July 31 and can be found at bit.ly/2JYc6tk.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.