A closer look at changes made to municipal election financing in Alberta

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UCP changes municipal election financing
WATCH ABOVE: As Edmontonians look towards the fall election, both incumbents and challengers will need to take note of new rules around financing campaigns to run for mayor or city councillor. Sarah Ryan takes a look at the changes announced by the UCP and how they could impact the vote. – Mar 10, 2021

With Alberta’s municipal elections scheduled for this fall, candidates and voters should be aware of changes to the way local campaigns are run and financed.

In 2018, the NDP government eliminated corporate and union donations. The New Democrats also put a cap on how much an individual could donate to a candidate, a maximum of $4,000 that could be split up however the donor chose.

But last summer, the UCP government nixed the cap, once again allowing people to write multiple cheques for up to $5,000 to as many candidates as they’d like. To non-profit Democracy Watch, that poses a big problem.

“That will allow wealthy individuals to use money to have undemocratic and unethical influence over candidates for city and town councils across the province,” said the group’s co-founder Duff Conacher.

READ MORE: UCP says Bill 29 will level playing field for local elections, NDP says it opens Alberta’s democracy up to ‘dark money’ 

Ward 1 councillor Andrew Knack doesn’t agree that donations can buy off politicians, but he is worried about how the UCP’s increased limits could stack the deck against newcomers.

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“Why this is the wrong approach is it provides a huge advantage to incumbents,” he said. “Incumbents are often the ones who have an easy time, or at least a much easier time, raising money.”

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READ MORE: ‘Calgary’s Future’ registers as first 3rd-party group ahead of city election

Global News asked for an interview with Justice Minister Kaycee Madu or Ric McIver — the province’s previous and current municipal affairs ministers — but neither obliged.

“Alberta’s government made several changes to municipal election rules to level the playing field for all Albertans,” reads a statement issued by a spokesperson for Alberta Municipal Affairs. “Incumbency has its own advantages, and these changes will level the playing field for new candidates.

“We also believe this will increase candidate and voter engagement during the fall municipal elections.”

Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at MacEwan University, said he thinks the changes do chip away at some of the advantages incumbents held, especially in a pandemic election when advertising will be key.

“Allowing people to contribute $5,000 donations to an unlimited number of candidates, I think will give competitors the ability to raise funds,” he said.

In 2017, the average cost of a winning campaign for Edmonton’s city council was around $65,000.

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There was a wide disparity in bankrolls. For example, Jon Dziadyk spent around $10,000 to knock off incumbent Dave Loken who spent around $120,000.

Knack spent around $18,000, a luxury he said he was afforded by being an incumbent with pre-existing name recognition.

“I wish I could say it didn’t matter at all to not have money, but that would be naïve,” he said.

One of his concerns with the changes to financing revolves around disclosure and the voters knowing who’s backing who.

“The provincial government actually removed the ability for municipalities to require that disclosure to happen in advance of the election, which again is a just shocking lack of transparency,” Knack said.

Conacher agreed.

“Candidates should be required to disclose who’s bankrolling them before election day, because voters have a right to know that — before they vote,” he said.

Knack is hopeful candidates will take it upon themselves to make their donors public before election day, even though it’s not legally necessary.

One change that Knack, Conacher and Mensah all agree is an improvement is a rule surrounding leftover funds.

“The one small change that I do think was a step in the right direction was not allowing candidates to carry over a surplus into the next election,” Knack said.

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Extra money over $1,000 will now have to be donated to charity, meaning incumbents and challengers will both start their campaigns from scratch.

“That will give them a fighting chance to be able to compete,” Mensah said.

The full list of campaign financing rules for the City of Edmonton can be found here.

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