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Sunday, July 23, 2017

USA Style Dark Money Has Come Into Alberta's Politics

Alberta's laws on reforming Election Financing has come a long way since the Notley government came to office. We really needed to "clean up our act" on donor disclosures, contribution limits and political accountability. 

But recently, in Alberta, we have seen the arrival of American-style Political Action Committees (PACs).  They are being formed and operating outside the spirit and intent of recent Notley electoral reform efforts. Some recent legislative review is needed for some context on what has been going on around political finance reform...and what still needs to be fixed.

STEP 1:
Eliminate Corporate, Union and Employee Organization Political Donations.

The Notley government's very first piece of legislation upon being elected in 2015 was "An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta."

It was a law designed to eliminate corporate, union and employee organizations who bargain collectively from making donations into Alberta electoral politics.  

Prohibited contributions included those to, "registered" candidates in nominations, elections and by-elections.  Contributions from these sources were also disallowed to "registered" constituency organizations. Something long over due and studiously ignored by the former PC government.

Step 2:
Reduce Levels of Political Contributions by Individuals

In December 2016 they took their "second step" introducing Bill 35 the Fair Elections Financing Act.  The stated motive behind this law, as recorded in Hansard on December 6, 2016, was to "...rein in political spending by political parties and reduce individual contribution limits. Third parties would also no longer fund their agendas through anonymous contributions for political advertising."

The Notley government said they were getting "big money and special interests influences out of deciding elections," then adding transparency and a "level playing field for all candidates and parties...and give democracy back to Albertans."  Good stuff! 

The goals was to assure Albertans "...that ideas and not money would determine success or failure at the polls...that Alberta's political leaders would be chosen based on what they stand for and not be influenced by how much money was spent during political campaigns."

Specific nomination, election and by-election spending limits were set for political parties and candidates.  Individuals could only donate a maximum total  of $4000 per calendar year to all provincial political activities.  Corporations and Unions could no longer "second" their staff to work to a campaign and keep them on the company payroll. All good stuff in the service of the admirable policy objectives.

The Wildrose was on-side and noted, in debate, that rather than a $4,000 personal contribution limit, they wanted  an even lower $1,000 personal limit.  They also rightly noted, that nothing had been done to stop sitting governments from abusing taxpayer sourced advertising dollars to boost an incumbent government profile leading up to an election.

By all accounts the revised system of campaign finance controls is working as intended.  However the world has changed.  The perpetual campaign nature of modern politics and the rise of the influence of the ubiquitous Internet means the old election writ-triggering model is out of date and out of touch.  All the good intentions of fair limits, disclosure and eliminating big money backroom back-scratching anonymous influences are bring thwarted.  

Step3:
Enter the Political Action Committees!
Elections Alberta tracks Third Party Advertisers both, politically and in elections.  There are some "Election Advertisers" who have recently de-registered and other registrants who have not yet disclosed any information at all.    

The "Political Advertisers" are even more interesting. All seven of the registered entities filed 6 months of fund raising for 2017, The Alberta Federation of Labour disclosed $490k from 24 union locals.  Next was the Merit Contractors Association coming in at $194k but no details on where that money came from.  That is followed by the Alberta Advantage Fund, a diverse group in at $178k.  The others have raised between Zero and $25k.  

These are all legitimate initiatives legally involved in election or political advertising and operating within the spirit and intent of the disclosure laws.

However, what is emerging is a number of politically active operations akin to American Political Action Committees, known as PACs.  They are not registered as Third Party Advertisers because they are not active in election or political advertising.  

The operations I know of, and there may be more, are the emerging Alberta Together centrists effort initiated by former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel.  There is the left leaning, Progress Alberta operation headed by Duncan Kinney.  Full disclosure, I have been to events sponsored by both of these groups, and will continue to do so but have not donated to either of them and will not do so.

There is a coalition of conservative groups called Alberta Can't Wait, the Alberta Prosperity Fund and Unite Alberta.  The latter admitted to funding part of Jason Kenney's PC Leadership Campaign.

This raises red flags about PAC political activities, because they claim to be beyond election and political advertising disclosure requirements.  What is at risk with this non-disclosure is the return to backroom back-scratching politician-based influence dealings funded by big-money anonymous donors.  This is not good for democracy, regardless of the quality of the intent.

Benign Citizen Engagement Groups or Secretive Political Operations?

These Alberta PACs are alleging that they are not engaged with or within any political party operations or candidate support.  Their fund raising is said to be for advocacy and issues management efforts.  

As a result they are third-party political action organizations with agendas and operate outside the current laws of donor disclosure and contribution limits. Operating without donor disclosure means they are essentially aligned with what has become known as Dark Money that has taken control of the American political culture.

We see these PACs organizing events, commenting and pressing on issues of concern to them  as a good thing for an informed citizenry enabled for more critical thinking. 

However, in the case of Unite the Right PAC, it raised $508,000 from 2,129 donors for the Jason Kenney PC leadership run.  These funds were raised before the  leadership writ was issued and therefore believed to outside the legal disclosure requirements. 

That money was in addition to the $1,505,894.13, also raised and disclosed, within the campaign financing laws relating to Mr. Kenney's PC leadership campaign.

Mr. Kenney "promised" to disclose the identity and details of Unite the Right pre-writ anonymous donors.  He has since reneged on that promise.  

To be fair the Kenney PC leadership has released the names of 63 Unite the Right pre-writ donors who contributed $118,745 of the total raised.  But what about the rest and why not disclose, as promised?

"Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant" - Justice Louis Brandeis

The question remains; what is the Kenney campaign hiding and why not fulfill the political promise to disclose the full pre-writ donor details? They claim to have a "subsequent" legal opinion claiming privacy constraints against disclosure. 

But that is exactly the kind disclosure concerns behind the recent legal changes to the campaign financing laws. 

Kenney should release the legal opinion so we could test its analysis and assess its veracity.  Kenney could also offer to return those non-disclosed donors dollars to those who do not wish to be disclosed.  

This may require some retroactive legislative capacity and a supervised systems by Elections Alberta to verify the return system. Is that OK, so long as it respects the privacy of those who contributed to the Kenney PAC scheme?  Or is the public entitled to know all those who participated in the pre-writ non-disclosure Kenney campaign fund raising scheme?  

Some ethical and moral questions obviously impinge on any such process.  Could it be developed as part of a new modern, comprehensive go-forward legislative arrangement for better disclosure requirement to cover PACs.

Step 4:
NOW WHAT?

Modern politics has become perpetual election campaigning machine.  Writ periods are no longer reasonable time frames to control donor disclosures and apply funding limits in Alberta's political culture.  

Without continuous full disclosure and annual limits on all PAC donations regardless of policy or political influencing purposes we run the risk of seriously diminishing our democracy and, quite possibly, enabling political corruption.    

We need new disclosure and contribution limit laws more aligned with the contemporary realities of Alberta's modern political culture.  It cannot be delayed.  Accepting non-disclosure or benign indifference to Dark Money in Alberta's politics is a clear and present danger to our democracy.

The NDP government recently said they saw no reason to revisit its recent election reform agenda.  Given the rise of PACs and their donor secrecy, the perpetual nature of electoral politics, and the disclosure avoidance tactics of the Kenney PC leadership pre-writ fund raising, that reluctance has vanished. 

We need to revisit and revise our political contribution laws to build on the good work done to date and enhanced to accommodate legitimate PAC influence efforts but with full and real-time detailed disclosure. 

And that is a good thing for returning public trust in our political processes.  And that is a necessary thing to strengthen and protect our democracy.