Alberta bans political contributions

Unions, corporations no longer permitted to donate to political groups

Alberta’s new NDP government banned corporate and union contributions to political parties with its first bill.

Bill 1, An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta, received royal assent on June 29. The legislation will ban contributions retroactively to June 15.

As a result, only individual residents will be permitted to contribute to a candidate, constituency association, political party or leadership contestant. Individual contributions are limited to $15,000 per year.

The legislation sees Alberta joining Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and the federal government in banning corporate and union contributions.

"It puts the power back in the hands of citizens," said Alberta’s Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley.

"If your winning the election is dependent on donations from a corporation or a union… potentially you could have almost a conflict of interest in the sense that your loyalties lie with those people who have made donations to you. They ought to lie with the citizens you represent. So by removing the ability for corporations and unions to impact the political landscape that way, it makes politicians accountable directly to the population that voted them in."

The bill received all-party support, though the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose parties voiced concerns about the retroactive cutoff date, which was tied to the date the bill was introduced.

According to Ganley, the retroactive cutoff was necessary to ensure last-minute contributions weren’t used to give organizations an unfair advantage.

"We’re confident that will pass scrutiny," Ganley said.

There has also been criticism of potential loopholes in the legislation.

"You’re going to need Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and who knows who else to find out who gave money and how it got there," said interim leader of Alberta’s PCs Ric McIver in a statement.

"The transparency that exists today will no longer exist. Today, they could just write a cheque and report it in a transparent way and in the future they won’t be able to write a cheque," he said of corporate and labour organizations.

"If they look for ways to support government it won’t be nearly as transparent, nearly as open, nearly as fair as what it is today."

The argument that corporations and unions will now seek illegal means to make political contributions is a weak one, according to Dana Phillip Doiron, director of policy and communications for Elections Nova Scotia.

"That’s like saying ‘You can put up speeding limits, but people will still speed.’ If people speed, you have to have a regime in place to make sure that you catch them. And when you catch them you prosecute them," he said. "It’s like any law; you have to have consequences if people break them."

In 2011 amendments were made to Nova Scotia’s Members and Public Employees Disclosure Act as well as its Elections Act, banning corporations and unions from making political contributions and limiting individuals to contributions of $5,000. The changes required contributors’ names to be reported for any donation of more than $200.

Also in 2011, the province introduced limitations and reporting requirements relating to third-party advertising.

These limitations were necessary to level the playing field, Doiron said, and to ensure that "corporations and unions and other large organizations couldn’t have a deleterious effect on elections by spending more money than others would be able to."

Unlike Alberta, Nova Scotia allowed a period of almost two years between the amendments’ introduction and implementation. This period of communication, Doiron said, was intended to allow those affected the necessary time to adjust.

The period of communication was also crucial in establishing limitations for contributions to third-party advertising.

"Neither governments nor organizations want to limit free speech and participation in elections. The balance you strike is in how much you regulate, how much you require of the people who are participating and the limits you place on them," Doiron said.

"Nova Scotia set what we believe to be a reasonable restriction of third parties’ expenses. Primarily, the major obligation other than restricting how much they can spend is to register and let us know how much they spend and where they got the money. That transparency has been accepted as reasonable."

Doiron said it was only natural Alberta would "come into the fold" with similar legislation.

Alberta is exploring the issue of contributions to third-party advertisers moving forward, Ganley said, paying special attention to the issue of freedom of expression.

A special committee will examine the legislation, scrutinizing the issue third-party advertising, the issue of the retroactive cutoff, the issue of services being included in future definitions of ‘donation,’ and the issue of Alberta’s high contribution ceiling.

While it is possible future changes could be forthcoming, Ganley said she is confident in the legislation moving forward.

"Politicians are going to have to seek not only votes but also donations to political campaigns from average citizens, which means they’re going to have to spend a lot more time listening to those citizens instead of listening to corporations and unions with deep pockets," she said.

"I think it will have an impact in the sense that it will make the elections more fair."

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