Danielle In The House, December 5: Bill 7, Election Accountability Amendment Act

Ms Smith: I will aim to be brief because I have already spoken at length on this.

I do just want to start by providing some context because this will be the last opportunity I have to speak in the Legislature this session before we return again in the spring. I know that there have been some sanctimonious members’ statements directed our way, I’m quite sure, about the way in which this House has conducted its business. What I will say is that for the most part I believe that the business of the Chamber has moved on in quite a collegial way. If you look through the 10 bills that have passed in the Legislature, I would say that the members of the Official Opposition, the majority anyway because we do have free votes in our caucus, have been supportive of the bulk of the government’s agenda in this fall session.

For instance, there was majority support for Bill 1. I think there was unanimous support, in fact. We also were supportive of the Education Act, though we did attempt to make a number of amendments to it. Both of those, Bill 1 and Bill 3, were the only bills where the government accepted any opposition amendments. Bill 5, the New Home Buyer Protection Act, enjoyed widespread support, including in the opposition ranks. Bill 6, the changes to the OHS and safety codes also enjoyed support. The changes to Bill 50, which was renumbered Bill 8: although we had significant change we wanted to see to that, generally we were supportive of the direction of returning an independent needs assessment back to the Alberta Utilities Commission. Bill 9, the Alberta Corporate Tax Amendment Act, 2012, to make some housekeeping changes: supportive of that. Bill 10, the changes that were made to the Employment Pension Plans Act: supportive of that.

I think there has been a great deal of work that has been done, and in many cases it has been with the support of the opposition. We certainly have been open to being supportive of those things that we could agree on. Where we’ve seen difficulties and where we’ve seen differences of opinion, of course, have been on three major bills: Bill 2, which is the Responsible Energy Development Act; Bill 4, which is the Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act; and, now Bill 7, which is the Election Accountability Amendment Act, 2012.

I have to say that if we’re talking about respect, integrity, and purpose, I can tell you that it certainly didn’t show much respect, integrity, or purpose for the members opposite to vote down virtually every single amendment that was proposed not only by this opposition party but by the third-party opposition and the fourth party opposition as well. I think that the Member for Edmonton- Beverly-Clareview – unfortunately, he isn’t here – was keeping a better tally of this than I was, but I believe there were 119 amendments that were proposed to these various bills. As I’ve already mentioned, the government only chose to support two.

Now, I know from the conversations that we have in our caucus – and you’ve seen that we have had free votes on a number of issues. We’ve had our members voting differently, and I suspect you will see that there will be members voting differently on this bill as well. I find it very, very hard to believe that 61 Progressive Conservative MLAs looked at 117 amendments and couldn’t find a single one that was worth supporting. I find it very hard to believe that this is rising to the level of respect, integrity, and purpose that the hon. member opposite was just lecturing us all about. In fact, I’ve heard very many sidebar conversations haven taken place over the last couple of weeks about how some of these amendments were quite good, but they couldn’t be supported because they were being proposed by the opposition.

There is a term in psychology called “projection,” and projection is where you actually accuse your opponents of exhibiting behaviour which you yourself are actually demonstrating. I think that what we’re seeing, for all of the whining and complaining to the media that the members opposite do, is a little bit of projection because I have to say that I have never seen such blatantly partisan behaviour as I’ve seen of the members opposite for this entire process.

I do want to congratulate the members from the other opposition parties. I think that we’ve enjoyed having a number of late nights debating a variety of amendments. We’ve appreciated the support that you’ve lent to our amendments. I hope that you’ve appreciated some of the support that we’ve given to your amendments. I only wish that I could congratulate the members opposite for being equally open minded.

With that in mind, moving to the issue at hand, Bill 7, I had initially risen to speak generally in favour of Bill 7. As I’ve already mentioned, we do have a split in our caucus. There are some members who do support the legislation because of the fact that there are many amendments – many amendments – that I think are worth supporting. When you have 90 out of 101 recommendations that have been put forward by the Chief Electoral Officer accepted by the government, that’s a very positive thing, so this is a bill where it isn’t all bad. I think that much is very clear.

Some of our members are inclined to support some of the positive aspects of it like student voting, like the fact that there’s disclosure of the leadership campaign donations and the fact that there’s greater disclosure around the issues of surveys and polls. I think everybody was driven crazy, quite frankly, by all of the dialing and robocalling that took place during the last election. So I think that there are some good reasons why you would see some members support this bill.

I personally, though, am not going to support this bill. I think it’s quite clear to me that this bill fails to reach the standard of accountability and transparency that the Premier keeps promising that she’s going to deliver on. This bill does not raise the bar in the way that I think the Premier had given the expectation that she would when she became leader of her party and then subsequently Premier of the province. Let me go through the significant problems that we have with this bill that could have been corrected and that the government, unfortunately, chose not to, which is the reason I’ll be opposing it.

First of all, let’s remember how we got to this point in the first place. We had a series of high-profile scandals involving huge corporate political donations and tax dollars being funnelled to political parties, which has shaken the public confidence in our democratic process. Albertans want to know that our democratic elections are fair, that political parties can’t be bought by special interests, and that the sole stakeholder in our elections is and always will be the individual voter.

In the spring the Justice minister began this whole process in the four days of question period that we had by seemingly refuting that we needed to have a change in legislation at all. There seemed to be some confusion on that side about the restrictions that they had placed on the Chief Electoral Officer to speak openly and candidly about the results of his investigation. There was confusion about whether he was permitted to release the results of his investigations when he found wrongdoing, and he has found wrongdoing.

In a July press release his office indicated that he had commenced 81 separate investigations – we know that there are many others that could be initiated – of which in 37 he found wrongdoing, in another 14 he found wrongdoing and only indicated a warning or an administrative penalty, and in the remaining 30 he found no wrongdoing. The fact that he was not permitted to release these results was the very reason why the Justice minister was ultimately pressed to bring forward the legislation that he did.

Now, in combination with that, we knew that there was going to be a change to the four-year election cycle for municipalities. I think it’s unfortunate that he smooshed these two bills together because I think that there are many hon. members who actually are more in favour of some of the changes made to the municipal elections law than they are of the paltry attempts to fix the electoral financing law, and you may have found that there would have been more support if this had been split into two different bills.

Let me go back to some of the reasons why we are also here. I do find it interesting as well that the Justice minister finally did end up accepting the majority of the recommendations proposed by the Chief Electoral Officer when it was the previous Chief Electoral Officer who did not have his contract renewed after having put forward recommendations. It was quite clear that his recommendations ran afoul of what the government wanted at the time. I suppose better late than never. But it is unfortunate that there were some significant proposals that were put forward by the Chief Electoral Officer that were left on the table.

It is also unfortunate that we will never know the 19 files that the former Chief Electoral Officer had put forward to prosecute, which the then Justice minister, now Premier, chose not to act on. It’s unfortunate that we will never know what those cases involved because we think that it would have gone a long way towards actually putting teeth into this legislation if you actually had a Justice minister and a government that were committed to prosecuting when they found wrongdoing.

We’re glad, in any case, that it’s closing some of the loopholes. However, it certainly doesn’t go far enough in closing all of the loopholes, and as it is written, Bill 7 does actually very, very little to improve accountability and transparency in our democratic processes.

I do want to go through the amendments that the members opposite rejected of ours, because I do know that in sidebar conversations at least some of the members were supportive of them, and just remind them that it’s their own party’s inability to allow free votes – again, another broken election promise from the current Premier and leader of their party – and the fact that they have whip votes on that side that has prevented them from being able to support some of these, I think, quite reasonable amendments.

I’ll just run through them again because, hopefully, at some future point, when these amendments come back, there might be another opportunity to address them.

In the first case, we wanted to see an amendment that would have rejected the demand for quarterly financial reporting from the constituency associations. This was not a recommendation that came from the Chief Electoral Officer. It’s a bit strange that it’s in there, especially since we know that this is going to create a huge amount of additional paperwork burden on all of our constituency associations.

We know that they’re volunteers. We know that during election periods a lot of the activity of our constituency associations does end up curtailing – this is going to create an additional enormous burden of paperwork without really getting at the issue of some of the transparency. We already have limitations at the local constituency level. It’s not the local constituencies that we’re worried about receiving a $430,000 cheque from a single donor. That’s actually happening at the political party level.

The fact that the government has chosen to put this is in and would not listen to some of the arguments about the excessive paperwork burden I thought was unfortunate.

We also know that the government and the Justice minister made it quite clear that they think it’s the donor’s responsibility and that the burden should be on the donor to share the responsibility or most of the blame for illegal donations. We tend to take the other view. It’s the political party that should know what the election rules are. Most donors don’t wake up in the morning and say: gee, I’m going to cut a cheque for $430,000, and I need to find a way to get around the rules. That is something that is solicited from a political party, and it’s the political party who should bear the burden of the blame and the burden of the penalty when that occurs. The government quite clearly wants to continue to keep the burden on the donors. We think that the burden should have been placed on the political party, and of course they rejected that.

We also believe that we needed to close the Katz loophole or the Katz lobster boil loophole, as I think the hon. House leader saw the debate go. We knew that it was some of the smaller pooled contributions that the hon. House leader on the opposite side was concerned about, so we were willing to propose a subamendment to try to address some of the concerns that he had. It’s still unfortunate that the government did not see fit to make the changes, that we know Albertans are asking for, to close this loophole that allows huge donors to be able to cut a single cheque and then write multiple tax receipts to friends, associates, and family members, skirting around what the law clearly is designed to do.

There would have been a very simple way for them to close that loophole. The Member for Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills proposed it, and of course it was voted down by the members opposite. So it didn’t do anything, I think, to restore public confidence that we have a system now that can be trusted going into the next election.

We also wanted to make taking action on violations mandatory for the CEO, not optional. This is something that even the Justice minister talked about when he introduced his legislation. I was over at the press conference, and he was quite clear that the Chief Electoral Officer must release the results of the investigations.

But, heck, when you went and looked into the actual legislation, it didn’t say “must”; it said “may.” I don’t know why it is that the Justice minister would tell the media one thing out in the public, and then when he was challenged in here to actually make the legal change in the wording to give weight to what he had said, he rejected the amendment out of hand. I think that this was an error. What people need to know is that when wrongdoing is found, when an investigation takes place, when there are fines or administrative penalties, the Chief Electoral Officer must release that to the public so that we will know who has done wrong, so that there is that element of public shaming. Part of the reason why all of these illegal donations have been able to go on and on and on, year after year after year, where some say, “well, it was just our common practice,” is because no one has ever suffered a penalty for anything. There has been no public disclosure when wrongdoing has been found. There’s been no disclosure of fines. Having this mandatory is an essential component of making sure that people follow the rules. Again, I think that this is another missed opportunity on the part of the government, and it will go not one step further towards restoring public confidence in the system.

We also wanted to see publicizing the failure to pay the penalties on time. We all recall what happened to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in the last couple of weeks. One of the things that the integrity commissioner requires is that you have to pay the fine and you have to show proof that you’ve paid the fine. One of the ways in which this issue kept returning and became a matter of public concern was that there wasn’t evidence that the penalties had been paid and that they had paid on time. Publicizing that failure to do so is just one other aspect of the public scrutiny that should be put on these kinds of illegal donations in order to make sure that they stop. It would have been a very simple administrative issue, very simply setting up a website. It wouldn’t have required a whole bunch of additional forms or paperwork or enforcement officers, yet once again it was rejected, unfortunately, by the members opposite.

Another amendment: extending the statute of limitations for punishing and publicizing illegal donations. We wanted to make this retroactive seven years. We know that wrongdoing has gone back further than that. We know that the government had attempted to clarify what the rules were back in 2004. No one seemed to listen. And why would they? There was no serious effort being made on the part of the governing party or the Chief Electoral Officer to root out the wrongdoing, stop it, and publicize those who had done wrong.

We know that there is a lot that needs to be cleaned up. We would have argued that since most people are required to keep their tax returns going back seven years – and this really is a tax filing issue, so people should be able to keep their tax forms related to donations to political parties – it would not have been a hardship for anyone to make this a bill that would be retroactive seven years, not the three years that has been proposed.

We think that seven years was rejected for, quite frankly, political reasons. We know that there’s a family member close to the Premier who would get caught up in the issue of illegal donations. We think that this is a period of time that was set deliberately to prevent the prosecution and investigation and disclosure of wrongdoing in that circumstance. I think that’s unfortunate. These laws that we make should be made for the benefit of the public, not for the benefit of any particular private interest, not to benefit or shield any particular person from prosecution. I fear that’s what’s taken place in this case.

Another amendment that we proposed. We worked with the mayor of Calgary, Mayor Nenshi, to try to correct an apparent error. This should have been a very straightforward amendment. It looked as though only candidates who are elected would forfeit their surpluses to charity. What Mayor Nenshi had proposed is: let’s just make the wording change so that it’s quite clear that if you’re a losing candidate, you also have to donate your surplus to charity. Once again, what seemed to be a very straightforward, simple, logical amendment was rejected by the members opposite probably for no other reason than that it was proposed by the opposition party rather than proposed by a government member.

Making a CEO report of wrongdoing mandatory, not optional, is absolutely essential if we’re going to prevent actions of wrongdoing in the future. You have to be able to have all of the files reported in a mandatory way.

We also wanted to see a lowering of contribution limits. We were pleased, actually, that the NDP put forward a contribution limit. We had proposed that we would see an amendment that would lower donation limits from $30,000 during an election to $10,000 and from $15,000 in a nonelection year down to $5,000. But the NDP did propose a $3,000 max that would take place during an election year or nonelection year. We also liked the approach that they took of suggesting that you would have a $3,000 max as well for the constituency associations because we know that a lot of the election expenses these days take place at the local level as well. We thought that that was a reasonable amendment, so we were prepared to support that, but once again the governing party voted that down. We think that what we need to see is some limitation on the upper limit for what the contributions are during an election campaign so you can once again restore in the public the confidence that there isn’t any relationship between the dollars contributed to a political party and any influence that might take place on political decisions after the fact. I think, unfortunately, the reason why we’re even having this discussion is because we have seen instances where huge, huge corporate donations or individual donations have been made, with the appearance that they intended to influence government decisions because there have been significant decisions before the government at the time that those decisions have been made.

There would have been a very simple way for them to address that, and that would have been by limiting the contribution limit. One other way that they could have limited it was by banning corporate donations. Now, we have already mentioned, of course, that we as an opposition party raised a lot of money in the last election. We also would have been impacted by a ban on corporate donations, but we felt so strongly and received feedback from our members at a recent AGM that this is something that they want to see. They want to see election financing returned to individual voters. They want to remove the influence of corporate and union donations from the apparent effect that it has on political decision-making. Unfortunately, the government once again voted that down.

We would have liked to have seen them propose an amendment that would have allowed for the same ban to apply to trade unions. We did the best we could putting forward an amendment that would have ended corporate donations. Unfortunately, once again, that amendment failed.

We also would have liked to have seen, finally, the raising of the maximum penalties for those who have done wrong, for parties and for individuals. The government has proposed $1,000 to $10,000. We would have liked to have seen that go a little bit higher, to $25,000. We know that the government is increasing fines for administrative penalties across a whole range of different types of violations. We think that these kinds of violations are very, very serious because it draws into doubt the integrity of our democratic process when we have seen repeatedly, year after year after year, our Election Act violated. We think that having a serious penalty levied not only against those who are the donors but also those who are the recipients of these donations would have gone a long way towards ensuring that we could restore some integrity to the elections financing legislation and also the way our elections are conducted.

There are a few things that we wish we had seen in this legislation. We know that the Premier, when she was running for leader of the Progressive Conservatives, promised a fixed-election date. Of course, she didn’t deliver on that. She doesn’t deliver on many of her promises, Mr. Speaker. She delivered a fixed-election window. But I noticed, once again, the Chief Electoral Officer said all of the benefits that would be derived from having a fixed election date – I’m not quite sure how the government members can be so double-minded about this. They kind of accept the idea of a fixed-election date for municipalities, but they reject the idea of a fixed-election date for provincial political parties. I think the idea is that they want to be able to continue to manipulate the choice of the election date to be able to choose the election date when it’s an advantage to the governing party as opposed to having one where it’s fair to all.

We also would have liked to have seen an amendment if we were going to go through and change the elections law – I may as well say it. We would have put forward an amendment for recall because I can tell you that with some of the things that we’ve seen in the last few months, I can imagine that there are a few MLAs who would be facing a recall petition today. So we’ll have to save that one until after the next election.

In closing, Mr. Speaker, I certainly would have liked to have been able to support this legislation. I know that my caucus was looking forward to being able to have a reasonable debate, putting forward a reasonable argument for reasonable amendments, and they thought that the members opposite would give some reasonable consideration to them. They did not, and as a result, instead of passing a bill that I think this whole Chamber could be proud of, we’re passing a piece of flawed legislation that falls well short of what it is that the Premier promised in her election campaign and well short of what the Justice minister, I think, could have accomplished had he been able to see his way through to supporting some of our amendments.

Let me just summarize the main things that we believe this legislation has not done. We thought we needed to address the issue of corporate and union donations and ban them. Not done.

We needed to make sure that there were rules in place to have more strict contribution limits and also that they could not be skirted around. That was not done. We wanted to make sure that illegal activity was reported not just for the last three years but going back, the same period that we’re required to maintain our tax records, seven years. That was not done. We also wanted to know that the results of all of these investigations would be revealed. Not done. We wanted confirmation that any fines that were levied would be paid back. That was not done. We wanted confirmation that any illegal donations would also be paid back. That was not done.

We put forward a package of potential amendments for this bill, and quite frankly the government just simply ignored them. Many of these proposed recommendations had been endorsed and proposed by the Chief Electoral Officer, so there was an extra level of validation to what we were proposing, but once again the government ignored them. I think the government ignores its own democratic deficit at its own peril.

With that, Mr. Speaker, I will be opposing this bill.