Alberta’s moral deficit in political funding

When a ruling party has been in power longer than the majority of its citizens have been alive, the line gets blurred between the proper roles of government, its partisan supporters, its party machinery and the bureaucracy that manages its services.

When a ruling party has been in power longer than the majority of its citizens have been alive, the line gets blurred between the proper roles of government, its partisan supporters, its party machinery and the bureaucracy that manages its services.

Nobody came out of the recent Alberta Progressive Conservative convention to make headlines saying the province needs to bring political fundraising laws into line with public expectations of fairness and openness.

And why should they? These laws are mandated by government, not party policy.

But in Alberta, it’s fair to ask: what’s the difference?

The Wildrose Opposition is making hay over recent revelations from CBC news that Premier Allison Redford’s sister Lynn (who happens to be vice-president of special projects for Alberta Health Services) inappropriately expensed up to $3,500 in donations to the PC party.

Good for them for doing so, but the behaviour of Alberta’s political culture speaks to an awful lot more than $3,500 in cash, plus a few hours of political organizing on the company’s (taxpayers’) time. 

That occurred back in 2008, when political fundraising in Alberta was all but going down in ethical flames. All sorts of government-funded agencies were using tax grant money to “give back” to the party that had ruled the province for most people’s living memory.

Colleges, universities, hospitals, school boards, municipalities — even ATB Financial — have since been found to have “erroneously” expensed partisan donations made by their officials.

Recent headlines of questionable donations by the family and businesses of Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz are likewise only part of the picture.

The issue is Alberta’s democratic deficit.

People here have freedom to run for office and vote as they choose. But the rules governing how parties are financed, the way party leaders are chosen, and how elections are fought are skewed heavily toward those with power to grant favours and those with money to secure them.

Alberta is the only province in Canada with no spending limits on elections. Alberta allows the second-highest tax credit limit for political donations of all the provinces. There is no prohibition on corporate or union funding of political parties — and as we have seen, the donation limits seem more like guidelines than rules.

Only in Alberta is the position of chief electoral officer (the top policeman on watch against corrupt electoral practices) appointed by a partisan agent of the party in power.

Lorne Gibson held that position once. He fought for tighter limits on party fundraising and more transparency in how the money is spent. He was fired in 2009 by then-premier Ed Stelmach.

That was the low point. That was not too long after the premier sought to recoup his leadership campaign costs by selling face time in conjunction with a fundraising dinner. These dinners and breakfasts — the lifeblood of all parties — were attended by people on payrolls either fully or partly filled by tax dollars, and nobody will ever know how many expensive meals ended up with receipts given, which were expensed back at the government-funded office.

It was unethical — and far too often unquestioned.

And now we hear the premier’s sister — with her six-figure government salary — felt entitled to political activism, with us paying the expenses.

It must be pointed out that Lynn Redford was a senior executive at the Calgary Health Region at the time her expense claims were routinely approved. When the regions were dissolved and melted into the current AHS, its new CEO Stephen Duckett put a sharp line on what government employees could do politically while on the clock.

He’s history now, too, spending his severance elsewhere.

Wildrose is not calling for a total revamp of the laws surrounding election fundraising — just a public investigation into alleged Tory wrongdoing.

We must remember they actually outpolled the Tories in that regard, raising $2.4 million in the last election, against $1.8 million for the Progressive Conservatives. That campaign was supposed to be a Wildrose upset.

Maybe that speaks to our political culture as well. In Alberta, who can tell?

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca. Email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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