Reboot Alberta

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.

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.  

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:

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.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Albert'a Political Uncertainty Continues

First a disclaimer.  I don't think we can rely on "opinion" polls done through the Internet as being representative because they are not random and often "weighted" by taking a small response segment and over-valuing it in an attempt to be more reflective on the population distribution.

The result is not the best possible version of the "truth" but more likely a rather blatant misrepresentation of opinion.   The Mainstreet Research poll I am about to reference suffers from these shortcomings and even used the much discredited 2011 "Census" results as the basis for demographic weighting.  That said, what else did they have to "weigh" the demographics in their survey responses? Garbage in - Garbage out!

They used their proprietary Chimera IVR process to get responses. I still can't get the smile off my face. IRONY ALERT!   The Chimera origins are from an "imagery incongruous monster" from Greek mythology said to be a "fire-breathing she-monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail." Even the dictionary definition made me smile when applied to the reliability of such survey results; "a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve."  Just like the reliability of the methodology of this "opinion" poll.

That said, presuming we can't rely on the findings there are some things of interest to be gleaned from these results.  Mostly what we seem to be able to say is that the political culture in Alberta is in an existential flux, especially regionally.

Edmonton is strongly NDP at 45%. The  Edmonton"progressives" seem to have left the Progressive Conservative party in and gone NDP or undecided at 16%. They have not moved to the Alberta Party or Liberal centrist options.   The conservative core in Edmonton at 21% has not seen a Jason Kenney leadership bump and actually dropped 1%.  The Wildrose base in Edmonton is static at 26% but in second place, which has to worry the big dark money behind the Kenney PC leadership.

Calgary Conservatives have seen themselves as the breeding ground for Premiers for sure in the PC dynasty.  It is not surprising that the core PC conservatives are big-time Calgary-based Kenney supporters at 38%.  What is more surprising is that NDP is number 2 at 26% and the WRP is 22%, worse than they do in Edmonton. The Alberta Party and Liberals have their largest support levels in Calgary too at 7% each. Note both party leaders come from Calgary.

The 'Rest of Alberta" a.k.a. "rural Alberta" is not in any existential flux.  They are solidly conservative with a 75% combined Kenney(27%)/Jean 48% support. It would be interesting to see if there is an urban-rural split in places like Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer and Fort McMurray.

The aggregate Alberta numbers are pretty misleading as a result of these regional influences and the reality that all politics are local. They may also be misleading due to the "weighing" of results to try and reflect demographics.  For example, the 65+ age group is only 11%  of Alberta's population but makeup 14% in the sample size.

The survey has 33.5% participants in the 18-34 age group but Alberta has about 24% in the same grouping so they get significantly over-represented.  Note that 41% of 18-34 survey segment supported Brian Jean's WRP, 17% for Kenney Conservatives and 18% for Notley's NDP.  Likely another misleading result as a result.  Another misleading concern is the survey asks how you would vote for today, on a decided and leaning basis but has the Liberal option with David Swann as its leader.  He isn't the leader. They are in a leadership contest now.

The other interesting aspect is the Undecideds.  The largest segment is in Edmonton at 16% and the least is Calgary at 13%.  On the preference on who should be leading a merged PC and WRP it is overall uncertain.  First, the question is misleading because the parties can't merge legally.

The regional differences come into play.  Calgary is split equally between Kenney and Jean at 27%.  Edmonton and the Rest of Alberta favour Jean.  In Edmonton "Someone Else" beats both men at 26% and Unsure is at 32%.  Overall it is a 53% share for Kenney and Jean but 47% split between None of the Above or Unsure. Not a strong indication of interest in the future of the conservative political culture in Alberta, regardless of regions.

So while we can't rely on the science-based reliability of the results I think we can surmise that Alberta is not yet made up its mind nor set the direction of its political future.  It is not a clear choice between Left or Right.

The Next Alberta is more likely to be a centrist progressive government if the results of a 2009 real survey of political values based on the 2006 Long From reliable Census trend into the 2017 population.  That research found 63% of Albertans identified strongly with progressive values.  Fixing the vacuum of political options in the progressive political center in Alberta is where the potential is for real change in our political culture.

So far it is still an open question about who, if anyone, will fill that vacuum... effectively.

Monday, April 03, 2017


Keith Olbermann, formerly on NBC I believe, is doing an informative series of Video Blogs on Trump administration.

He is worth a watch...and a careful listen.  Even worth a YouTube subscription.

Interesting that Russia is the largest number of links to this blog since I started commenting more on Trump "foibles."  Proof the "bots" are "alive and well."

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Does Donald Trump Know Anything About Public Policy?

David Pakman is a vlogger (video blogger for the uninitiated). He has a very interesting series of posts on the capacity of President Trump to actually do the job of President.

He runs some transcripts of answers to questions Trump at a newspaper editorial board.  It shows just how incapable President Trump is when it comes to dealing with complex issues.

Do you believe there is an issue about President Trump's capacity to actually focus on a question and provide a reasoned relevant answer?

Check this out!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Is There a Future for Progressive Politics in Alberta

There has been a recent takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta by the former Federal HarperCon Cabinet Minister, Jason Kenney and his social conservative base.  This has to be the final wake-up call for Alberta progressives.

The rise of an American-style Alt-Right and old-style Social Conservative political culture is now well established in Alberta with the Jason Kenney leadership of the PC Party.  What will the remaining progressives in the PCAA do now with the loss of the Lougheed heritage from their party?

We progressives are the largest block of voter values in Alberta.  We have taken a lot for granted.  We have been complacent, comfortable, and even compliant, to the threats from an obvious authoritarian and growing conservative political movement in Alberta.

Up to now, Alberta progressives have been a laid-back bunch politically.  We have been dozing passively to these emerging authoritarian conservative changes, living in denial that they are a real threat.  With each alarm bell, we have repeatedly pressed the snooze bar, rolled over and went back to sleep, blithely presuming Alberta will continue to be the dynamic progressive society we have known.

The "Unite the Right" conservative political movement has been instigated by the HarperCons Republican-lite acolytes, Jason Kenney and Brian Jean. They both have the single-minded goal of coalescing Alberta conservatives to beat Rachel Notley and her "socialist" government.

These Unite the Right leaders have offered very few specifics or policy ideas about how they would govern, should they form a government. They have generally articulated classic conservative bromides of reduced taxes, reduced government, reduced regulation, expanded individualism, deny climate change, privatize health care, public education and deference to market forces and competition as the only way to solve complex social problems.

There are some efforts afoot to enable progressives to respond to these threats to a dynamic, inclusive, caring, responsible and resilient Alberta. The reality is Alberta progressives have to get active in the political culture of the province...or suffer the consequences of political omission.

The present progressive political options to influence the future of Alberta are very fragmented and, so far, ineffectual.  To change this Alberta progressives can make a big difference by joining a progressive party and donate to that party of your choice.  The options are the Alberta Party, the Alberta Liberals, the NDP or the Alberta Greens.

There are a few progressives still in the Kenney PC Party who believe they can convince him to move from the far right, where he has been all his life, towards the political centre.  I don't see any evidence he intends to do anything meaningful to those ends.  Consequently, I would not recommend Alberta progressives join the PCAA as a means to make a difference.

If you can't bring yourself to join a political party, you can effectively engage as a progressive citizen through activism within your memberships in community, social, professional and other networks. There are progressive  Alberta-based organizations focused on influencing politics and public policy.  Alberta progressives should also consider joining and donating to organizations like Progress Alberta and Public Interest Alberta to make a difference.

It is time for Alberta progressives to wake-up, stand-up and step-up for the greater good and the betterment of our province.  More to come from me in this space, but now is the time for action people.