Alberta government tables legislation that would reverse strict cap on donations to municipal election campaigns

Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu. ED KAISER / Postmedia, file

Residents would be able to donate $5,000 to every municipal election candidate in Alberta under legislation introduced Wednesday that would reverse the stricter contribution cap passed by the previous NDP government.

Individual donations during a municipal campaignare currently capped at $4,000 total that can either be given wholly to one candidate or distributed among several candidates throughout the province. The upcoming 2021 elections would be the first campaign with that cap in place. If passed, Bill 29 would amend the Local Authorities Election Act to revert the donation rule back to what it was during the 2017 local elections. 

“The changes we are seeking to make are about levelling the playing field so that the best candidates for the job, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, are running and winning,” he said. “These changes will allow political newcomers to run more meaningful campaigns. This will help lead to more competitive local elections and increase voter participation.”

Candidates would also be able to self-contribute up to $10,000 and raise $5,000 annually outside the campaign period, up from $2,000. Corporations and unions are still no longer allowed to donate to individual campaigns as introduced in the 2018 reforms.

Disclosing donations publicly would also no longer be required prior to the election so candidates don’t get bogged down with this administrative work while campaigning, Madu said.

It is also being proposed that those who receive funds or spend more than $50,000 would be required to have an accountant review their financial statements before submitting them. Under the current rules, municipalities can pass a bylaw requiring pre-election disclosure statements on the funding raised by all candidates. Transparency isn’t a concern, Madu said, because the same information would be publicly available after the election.

“I want candidates before the election day to focus on campaigning and running and cover as many grounds as possible. After all, that is what campaigns are all about. I don’t want them to be worrying about election day disclosure. All of that can be done post-election,” Madu said.

The proposed reforms also plan to give more power to third-party advertisers by eliminating regulations outside of the election period from May 1 in the election year to the close of the polls in October. Outside of that time, third-party advertisers would be allowed to act as they please, which Madu said is a change to increase their freedom of speech.

“We are protecting the free speech of advocacy groups like unions and corporations and other third parties by allowing them to voice their support for candidates, giving them a political voice they did not previously have,” he said. “I want them to have the freedom, which is a constitutional provision, to be able to focus on the local issues in any municipality that they want to be a part of. I want them to be able to support the candidate that supports the issues that are of importance to them.”

Mayor Don Iveson talks about how Edmonton city council has declared a state of local emergency, granting new powers to administration to restrict movement within the city and fix prices on Friday, March 20, 2020, in Edmonton. (Greg Southam-Postmedia)
Mayor Don Iveson said he was brief by Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu on the proposed amendments. GREG SOUTHAM/Postmedia, file

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the involvement of third-party advertising makes him concerned that the focus of a campaign could be shifted away from local issues. Iveson said he was briefed by Madu Tuesday on what to expect in the proposed amendments and that a number of city council’s suggestions and feedback were included.

“There are still some elements of the conversation around third-party advertising which I need to know more about. I still have real concerns about how that could distort campaigns that ought to be about local issues,” he said at a press conference.“They did listen to us on some of the other more administrative provisions and keeping the partisan angle out and keeping corporate and union money out of the campaigns and so those are positive steps that I do acknowledge.”

Responding to the bill, Opposition NDP municipal affairs critic Joe Ceci condemned the proposed amendments, arguing they would bring “dark money” into politics and reduce transparency for voters.

“This bill means that the rich can buy the council they want,” he said. “I think it is disgraceful.”

If passed, the bill would come into effect on Sept. 1. These changes would also impact school board trustee elections.

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