The Alberta government introduced legislation on Wednesday that it says is meant to give candidates more equal opportunity in local elections and to increase voter participation.
However, the NDP says it fears the proposed changes could allow people and companies with deep pockets to have too much influence over local elections.
Bill 29, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act, proposes a number of changes to the current legislation regarding local elections.
Among the changes proposed are allowing Albertans to donate up to $5,000 per candidate to as many candidates as they want to, “ensuring those without public name recognition have more flexibility to raise funds and get their message out,” the government said in a news release.
It would also keep candidates from having to file any disclosures before election day. The government argues such a provision allows candidates to focus on running for office.
If passed, the legislation would require candidates who receive contributions of $50,000 or who spend more than $50,000 to have a chartered professional accountant review their financial statements before submitting them to a municipality or school board.
“The next round of local elections will be critical for the future of Alberta,” Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu said in a news release.
“These changes are about levelling the playing field, so the best candidates for local office — regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum — are running and winning.”
The Alberta NDP issued its own news release in response to the proposed changes, voicing concern that the legislation would remove the current $4,000 limit on annual contributions to local campaigns and criticizing the idea of allowing people to donate up to $5,000 to as many campaigns as they like.
The NDP also expressed worry about candidates not needing to file disclosures before election day if the changes are passed.
“It’s immediately obvious that Jason Kenney and the UCP are determined to bring big money, dark money, back into Alberta politics and this bill odes that with our local elections,” Opposition Municipal Affairs Critic Joe Ceci said at a news conference. “I think it’s disgraceful.
“This bill would allow the wealthiest individuals to spend an unlimited amount of money supporting candidates. This bill means that the rich can buy the council they want.
“Who has $5,000 to give one candidate right now, let alone — in Calgary’s case — 14 councillors and one mayor, plus school board trustees… Kenney is putting municipal and school board elections up for sale.”
Ceci added that he fears Alberta is “going to see American-style super-PACs in our local campaigns” as a result of the legislation.
At the same news conference, Opposition Ethics and Democracy Critic Heather Sweet said she worries the changes would essentially legalize “multiple kamikaze campaigns at the municipal level.”
“This is another dark day for democracy,” she said.
“Jason Kenney is simply putting our democracy up for sale to the highest bidder.”
On its website, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association issued a statement about Bill 29 that said “some of the amendments give us pause.” However, the statement also noted the AUMA and its members “support many of the practical changes to the Local Authorities Election Act that enable fair elections.
“It is paramount that local elections remain local, and that any legislative amendments preserve the non-partisan, democratic processes that Albertans expect,” the AUMA statement reads in part.
“We have been assured by the ministry of Municipal Affairs that they are willing to consider amendments to the bill that make local democracy more accountable.”
Several city councillors in the province’s two largest cities voiced their opinions on Bill 29 on Wednesday.
Calgary city councillor Jeromy Farkas and Edmonton city councillor Jon Dziadyk both retweeted tweets by Madu quoting their support for the legislation.
“These changes create hope and opportunity for all those seeking to represent their communities,” Dziadyk said.
In the tweet Farkas retweeted, he said “Alberta is set to have races that celebrate our full diversity and allow for the most competitive local elections in the country.”
Edmonton city councillor Aaron Paquette voiced concern about the potential for big money to influence election outcomes.
“I’ve already been hearing from residents who are concerned,” Paquette told Global News. “They’re struggling to see how this levels the playing field.
“How many Edmontonians can afford several $5,000 donations to the candidates of their choice? Not many. But how many corporations can afford to do that? A lot more.”
Paquette said he shares those voters’ concerns.
“My residents are saying that they think politics should be about how deep your ideas are, not how deep your pockets are,” he said.
The government said it undertook an extensive consultation process with voters, community advocacy groups, elected officials, school board associations, municipalities and municipal associations before coming up with the proposed changes.
The government said that if passed, Bill 29 will take effect on Sept. 1.