Controversial Alberta election finance bill amended to cap to nomination contributions

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An Alberta government bill revising key election finance rules has been amended to rein in some of its most contentious changes.

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The UCP government has said the aim of Bill 81, the Election Statutes Amendment Act, which as of press time Tuesday had yet to pass legislative debate, is to strengthen democracy and get foreign money and influence out of Alberta politics.

Monday evening, Justice Minister Kaycee Madu introduced an amendment to the bill that would bring in a cap of $4,000 on one person’s party nomination contestant contributions. As introduced, the bill would have put no limit on those contributions.

“Through debate in the house, we discovered it will be possible for Albertans to donate an unlimited amount to nomination contests, and any amount over what is used in the campaign could potentially be turned over to political parties or constituent associations,” said Madu, who did not take questions from reporters in the legislature Tuesday.

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On Tuesday, NDP deputy house leader Christina Gray told reporters in the legislature the Opposition supported the government’s amendment, but the $4,000 cap effectively doubles the province’s limit of $4,243 per year for individuals donating to nominated political candidates and parties.

“That’s a lot of money going into our political system,” said Gray.

The bill prohibits those “affiliated” with political parties from running registered political action committees, closing what Premier Jason Kenney has called the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) “loophole,” because two AFL delegates sit on the NDP’s provincial council.

AFL president Gil McGowan has said the UCP bill as first drafted would muzzle civil society groups, making any kind of political criticism by third-party groups who want to run public advocacy campaigns impossible.

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On Monday, Madu admitted the bill’s original criteria for determining affiliation with political parties was “too broad,” so the government’s amendment would narrow what the Chief Electoral Officer must consider when approving or disapproving third-party advertiser applications.

Gray said it is positive to see the most “egregious” sections removed from the bill, but the NDP believes it could still be subject to court challenges for violating Charter rights to free speech.

“Someone can use Bill 81 to unduly influence leadership races, nomination contests, and our electoral process,” said Gray.

The NDP also introduced its own amendment Monday that would make it clear an individual could only purchase party or constituency memberships for their own use.

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As of press time Tuesday, the legislature had not yet picked up debate over the NDP’s proposed amendment.

According to an Interpretation Bulletin issued by Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer , under the existing law, third parties and individuals are prohibited from purchasing party and constituency association memberships on behalf of others. Individuals can only buy memberships for themselves.

Madu argued Monday against the Electoral Officer’s interpretation, saying there is no prohibition in existing law to prevent someone from buying another person’s membership.

Gray disputed Madu’s claim, and accused the minister and Premier Jason Kenney of wanting to be able to buy memberships for friends to influence nomination contests.

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In a Tuesday statement, Alex Puddifant, Madu’s press secretary, said the proposed changes will clarify that the purchasing of others’ party memberships is not exempt from contribution rules and limits.

Independent MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes, while supportive of closing the so-called AFL loophole,” are also critical of much of Bill 81, saying in a Tuesday statement that some changes would take Alberta “backwards” to the era of former Progressive Conservative premier Allison Redford, and “two-minute Tories stacking meeting halls and rigging votes.”

They also warned UCP backbenchers that Premier Jason Kenney’s “team of insiders” could exploit the bill’s loopholes against caucus members “in rigged nomination races.”

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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