Alberta election 2019: What’s changed when it comes to campaign financing?
Campaign signs, rallies, commercials, text messages and pamphlets in the mailbox are all part of what Albertans can expect as political parties hit the ground running trying to sway voters ahead of this spring’s provincial election.
But with new rules limiting how much parties and candidates can spend, as well as receive from donors, what’s different about this year’s election and how those running are funding their campaigns?
Perhaps one of the biggest changes that came out of the Fair Elections Financing Act — introduced by the NDP government in November 2016 — is a cap on the amount of money political parties can spend during an election period.
In previous years, parties had no limit on their spending both ahead of and within the 28-day election period. Now, under the new legislation, once the writ is dropped, party spending is capped at $2 million.
Just like the parties they’re vying to represent, candidates will also face spending limits in the 2019 election.
After the writ drops, candidates can only spend $50,000 on their individual campaigns.
“It will level the playing field, clearly,” Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt told Global News.
“I think it is [enough], particularly given that it starts on the writ period,” Bratt said.
“There’s a lot of other things that parties spend money on that isn’t advertising and they can spend that in the pre-writ period. But what it means is you don’t have a massive disparity.”
Before the writ drops, though, spending is limitless — parties and candidates are in a period of free-for-all when it comes to getting their message out to potential voters.
Ban on corporate and union donations
Another target of the NDP’s campaign finance legislation was the amount of money given to campaigns from unions, corporations and organizations around Alberta.
That source of cash is no more — as the practice was banned in January 2015.
Now, those groups must register with Elections Alberta as third-party advertisers. They can spread the word on behalf of a party or about an issue they believe should be an election issue — but are also subject to strict spending caps.
“They’re prohibited as contributors now to candidates or parties, so a way for them to get their voice out there and to express their opinion on who they support and who they don’t, they can register as a third party,” Elections Alberta deputy chief electoral officer Drew Westwater said.
The regulations on third-party advertising involve two sets of spending restrictions: From the start of the election advertising period, which starts Dec. 1, 2018 to the time the writ drops, groups can spend a maximum of $150,000. From the day the election is called to polling day, they’re restricted to another $150,000.
After Dec. 1, organizations also have to be a registered company in Alberta to be a third-party advertiser. Prior to that, Westwater said any company — anywhere in the world — can spend whatever they want on behalf of the party or candidate of their choice.
The massive donation, which Katz said at the time was made up of a number of smaller donations from family members and associates, was investigated by Elections Alberta.
Bratt said despite the NDP’s extensive efforts to “take big money out of politics… third parties remain outside much of their legislation.”
While the third parties are restricted by spending limits within the election advertising period, there are no restrictions on how much a person can donate to a third-party advertiser.
Bratt said the idea of capping that number at $30,000 was proposed by the UCP, but it couldn’t go ahead because of free speech issues.
Corporations and unions are also allowed to donate to registered third parties, where they’re restricted from donating to parties and candidates, Bratt said — something the UCP tried to restrict in calling for a ban on affiliated unions donating to third parties.
Bratt said the ban on corporate and union donations put Alberta in line with other provinces and the federal government but added, “there was also a partisan part of this too.”
“By getting rid of union and corporate donations — the union donations clearly hurt the NDP, but they never raised as much as the Conservative party did in corporate donations,” Bratt said.
Adding to the ban on donations from corporations and unions, personal donations to parties and candidates are also capped in Alberta.
Albertans can contribute a maximum of $4,000 during each calendar year, a restriction that remains the same whether they’re contributing to a party or a candidate.
“That $4,000 limit, that’s an aggregate amount for whatever purpose you’re donating it to,” Westwater said. “So if you give $2,500 to a candidate you’ve only got $1,500 you can give to a party.”
Potential donors also have to be a resident of Alberta.
How is it all enforced?
Elections Alberta said enforcement of the new rules and regulations is very much a trust approach; aside from third-party advertiser donors, all other spending is reported months after the election.
“[Political parties are] required to keep track of all their contributions and all their expenditures and all their receipts and file financial statements with us six months after the election, accounting for all their spending and all their contributions and things,” Westwater said.
For candidates, the window is a little shorter. They have to report their campaign spending details within four months.
During the election period, third-party advertisers have to report contributions they receive on a weekly basis, which are then posted online weekly. A final statement of what the parties have spent must be submitted within six months.
Considering this is a new process for everyone involved, Bratt said he doesn’t think Elections Alberta is equipped to deal with enforcement of the regulations and that parties and candidates will falter.
“My guess is, when this election is over, you’re gonna have a number of candidates — possibly the parties themselves — who violated the rules and will get fined by Elections Alberta,” Bratt said.
Bratt said the question will have to be asked: “Are they doing it deliberately or unwittingly?”
“We’re really not going to know until the election’s over what exact impact this has had.”
Watch below: Awaiting the writ; which parties are prepared for the 2019 election? (Filed January 2019)
Westwater said Elections Alberta officials do everything they can to ensure parties and candidates are aware of the regulations to try to avoid any missteps.
“To be fair, we as an organization are responsible for educating and informing what the rules are and what the legislation is. So we go to their party campaign kick-off and their candidate meetings prior to the election, explain all the rules and restrictions and requirements of the election,” Westwater told Global News.
“We also provide to the parties and candidates guidelines and guides on what the rules are for filing reports and how to file reports,” he said. “We have an online system where they can keep track of their financial reporting if they choose to use it.”
If a party or candidate does break the rules, Westwater said they would be reported to the election commissioner, who would deal with any administrative penalties or fines that would result from the overspending.
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