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Danielle In The House, November 26: Election Accountability Amendment Act
Ms Smith: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Well, I’m pleased to rise today to speak in favour generally of Bill 7, the Election Accountability Amendment Act. We’re very pleased that the government is bringing forward this legislation, but I think it’s worth reminding the Assembly of why we’re here.
I mean, when we were in the brief session in the spring Legislature, the hon. minister began by seemingly refuting that we needed to make this change to the legislation. I remember that at the beginning of this legislative session there seemed to be some confusion about whether or not the Chief Electoral Officer was actually permitted to release the results of his investigations when he found wrongdoing. I think, if everybody in the Assembly recalls, through that week we kept going back and forth and back and forth until, sure enough, a member of the chief electoral office went to the media and pointed out that, no, in fact, they believed they could not release the results of investigations and, no, in fact, they had never given the government the recommendation that the results of their investigations should be kept secret.
We were pleased that the government at that point announced the intention to go back and change this bad portion of the law, but I don’t think that there should be anything that the Justice minister celebrates today. This is a portion of the law that never should have been implemented in the first place. That being said, we’ll give credit where due, and we are pleased that we are now here debating eliminating this section of the law to give that freedom to the Chief Electoral Officer to be able to release the results of his investigations.
Let’s also remember why we’re here. I guess the minister has said that he’s accepted something like 90 of the 101 recommendations that the Chief Electoral Officer has put forward. Many of those recommendations had previously come forward from the Chief Electoral Officer Lorne Gibson, who did not have his contract renewed. I think that’s a stain on the government’s record, the fact that we are now debating recommendations that probably should have been debated when Mr. Gibson was around to be able to take some pleasure in seeing them implemented.
Also, I think it’s worth noting that there were some 19 files that Mr. Gibson had put forward with a recommendation to prosecute that the previous Justice minister chose not to act on. I think it’s a shame that we will never know what the results of those 19 investigations were and why he made the recommendations to prosecute.
Once again, I think that we’re looking at this bill as a bit of a mixed blessing. We’re glad that we’re closing some of the loopholes. However, it doesn’t go far enough. We believe that there are still some major reforms to this bill that are needed, and we think that there’s an opportunity to do that.
Let me tell you what we have heard loud and clear from Albertans. First of all, they want to know that elections and governments aren’t for sale to corporate and union interests. They want to know that contribution limits that are defined in law cannot be skirted around. They want to know that there won’t be excuses like, “Well, gee, I didn’t know the law applied to me” or “Well, gee, this was sort of standard practice at our organization even though it violated the law.”
They want to know that illegal activity will be reported, and not just illegal activity that took place over the last three years; they want to know that all illegal activity going back a reasonable period of time is going to be corrected. They want to know that investigations, the results of them, especially when wrongdoing is found, will be revealed. They want to know that political parties that solicit illegal donations are also going to be punished, not just those who are giving donations to political parties. They also want to know that illegal donations will be paid back and that nobody is going to profit from illegal donations.
This is why we will be putting forward some important amendments to put elections back in the hands of hard-working Albertans and to make meaningful improvements to the elections bill that we have before us.
As written, Bill 7 does, actually, very little to improve accountability and transparency in our democratic institutions and practices. Hopefully, we’ll be able to improve it dramatically before it passes. Let me just go through a couple of the things that the hon. members will expect to see from us as we debate this over the coming days.
First of all, for context – let’s remember the context in which we’re debating this legislation – the Chief Electoral Officer was asked to investigate a number of different potential violations of the bills. Back on July 9, 2012, Elections Alberta confirmed that they had opened 81 different investigations. As of that date they had found 37 illegal contributions that required them to issue some kind of fine or penalty in addition to 14 investigations where they issued a warning or censure to those who were involved. So we’re looking at, out of 81 investigations, 30 which saw the individuals cleared and 51 which found that there had been wrongdoing. We’d like to know how many more illegal donations are out there. I think that you will find that as we learn more about this, especially when we see how this legislation plays out and what limits we ultimately end up with, you will probably see that there are far more than the 81 investigations that the Chief Electoral Officer has already gone into.
Let me start with where we began today. My caucus members the hon. Member for Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills as well as the hon. Member for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills and I issued a policy statement on what we would like to see in this bill related to the treatment of corporate and union donations. We think there should be a ban on corporate donations. We know that there is, unfortunately, whether it’s real or whether it’s just perceived, a perception in the public that big money from big corporations can influence government decision-making. I think that we have seen a number of examples of this. The example that we raised this morning that has caused a lot of concern to our members, particularly those in the south, is the awarding of untendered, sole-source contracts for major transmission line projects done through Bill 50. The value of those projects is several billion dollars. The value of the entire plan when it’s finally fully implemented is somewhere in the order of $16 billion. If you go through and you look at the Progressive Conservative donation book, you see that any number of transmission and power line companies as well as those who are involved in the power business have given significant contributions to the political party.
Now, we have tried and tried and tried. I know the hon. Member for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre has tried to make the argument about how this level of transmission build doesn’t make sense. It didn’t have any impact on the government side. That’s what causes the public to wonder. If they make decisions that don’t seem to make sense and you draw this line from all of these heavy contributions coming from corporations, is there a link?
The perception is, I think, what is damaging the credibility of this government. The way you resolve that is that you put in place a ban on all corporate donations. Let’s take the influence of corporate dollars completely out of the political process.
Now, we know that we would be harmed by that as well. We put forward the numbers today in our press conference. If this rule had been in place, sure enough, during this past election there would have been 160 of our donations that we wouldn’t have received. Keep in mind that we have thousands of donations, thousands of donors, so this is a very small portion of our overall donations from an actual number of donations point of view, but it would have been a significant amount of money, $750,000. So we know that in proposing this, we also would be impacted by it, but that’s how strongly we feel that we need to go the extra measure to restore public confidence in the process, and this is why we would propose a ban on corporate donations.
Now, unfortunately, with the way the legislation, the amending act, has been written, at this moment the advice we’re getting from Parliamentary Counsel is that we may be unable to put forward an amendment that would be able to ban corporate donations. We’re hoping that we can find a way to be able to do this. I would think the government would make it a little bit easier for us. We’ve seen this before, for instance, with Bill 2, where the minister came in with a suite of additional amendments to be able to add to the list in Committee of the Whole. I would ask the Justice minister to consider doing the same, opening up this section of the bill so that we can have a robust debate about corporate donations and union donations. In the absence of that, we’re going to still try to find a way to be able to amend the bill. Our reading of it at this precise moment is that we may not be able to do that.
That leads to my second point. We also issued in our policy statement today that we need to see a ban on union donations as well. This has been controversial for a number of years. There are many, many union members who hold a variety of different political viewpoints. Many will support the Progressive Conservatives.
Many will support our party. Many will support the Liberals and the New Democrats. To have the union able to take dollars that are received through mandatory contributions – we do have a system where you have to pay mandatory union dues – and see a portion of those channelled to a political party which those rank and- file union members don’t support is something that has caused some controversy over the last number of years. Other jurisdictions are taking the lead on dealing with that.
We think that this is the reason as well why we’d like to see a ban on union donations, to be able to have that parity. If you’re not going to have corporate donations, you shouldn’t have union donations. You’d once again restore to each individual union member the choice of being able to support the political party of their choice rather than being forced to support causes that they don’t support.
Again, as mentioned before, because of the way that this amending act has been written, it does not appear at this moment that we’re able to put forward an amendment to ban union donations, so once again I would ask the Justice minister to consider, when we get into Committee of the Whole, putting forward this amendment so it can be debated and voted upon.
The third area of policy that we produced today was reducing the contribution limit. That would take us from $15,000 during a nonelection year to $5,000 during a nonelection year. The reason why we chose those limits is that we’re cognizant that most people, when they’re looking at elections law, are very familiar with the federal rules. At the federal level there’s an $1,100 limit on individual donations, a ban on union and corporate donations.
But that contribution limit came into effect at the same time as they brought in a per-vote subsidy. We’re not arguing for a per vote subsidy. We don’t think that taxpayers should be forced to support political parties. We think that it’s our job to convince rank-and-file members of the public to support a political party. With that in mind, it does mean that we think there needs to be a tolerance for a higher level of individual contributions than what they have at the federal level but certainly lower than we have right now.
In addition, we recognized that during a campaign – the concept of this makes sense to us – that you would double the contribution limit because we all know that campaigns are a lot more expensive than running a political party in a non campaign year. You’ve got additional brochures and lawn signs, advertising that you need to do. So we would like to see that contribution limit moved from $30,000 in a campaign period down to $10,000 for similar reasons.
Now, the unfortunate thing about this amendment as well is that based on the way Bill 7 has been written, this is also a section where Parliamentary Counsel is telling us that we would not be able to put forward an amendment because it is not currently in the act. But we would invite the Justice minister to bring forward an amendment in Committee of the Whole to be able to address this as well.
We have heard loud and clear from Albertans that they believe that these contribution limits are way too high, and they would like to see them lowered. They’d like to see a lower limit that is more in keeping with what they’re expecting out of this legislation. What they’re expecting out of this legislation is that we’re going to try to remove the influence of large corporate donors and the perception that they have an influence on government decision-making.
I think it’s been said before. No one is going to believe that somebody who gives $5,000 to a political party is going to affect a politician’s decision. I think everybody sees that. But once you start seeing $30,000 contributions or 30,000 contributions multiplied out through a circle of friends and family multiple times so you have a $430,000 contribution, that’s where the line gets drawn with members of the public. I think that the way that you address this issue is that you bring the contribution limits down not only during a nonelection year but also in an election year, and I hope that the Justice minister will consider doing that when we get into Committee of the Whole.
The fourth area is closing the Katz loophole as I think it’s been called. If it is the case – and I’m glad the Chief Electoral Officer is investigating the Globe and Mail report – that a single donor wrote a cheque to a political party for $430,000 and then after the fact divvied it up between a variety of friends and family, coworkers, and business associates, that is quite clearly offside with what the elections law is supposed to do and is intended to stop.
We think that we need to close this loophole so that it’s incumbent upon the recipient of a large contribution to make certain that if they receive a large cheque, they have the background documentation to ensure that the legality of the Election Act is being upheld. We will be putting forward amendments to be able to address this loophole, and we are hopeful that the Justice minister will see to it for the integrity of the political fundraising process, the integrity of all of us who run for political office, ensuring that this loophole is closed.
Now, I was saying that having these lower contribution limits also impacts us as well. I gave these results earlier today. We did have 11 individual donors who had given us more than $10,000 during the election. If these contribution limits had been put in place, that would have cost us $120,000. In combination these proposals that we’re putting forward would have impacted our party to the tune of about $870,000 in the last election. Again, that’s how strongly we feel that the public is demanding this kind of change. We are aware that this would impair our fundraising, but we believe that if everyone is willing to play by the same rules, this will go a long way to restoring the integrity in the process.
The next area I wanted to talk about was the issue of the connection that people perceive between the variety of public institutions that have come under scrutiny as a result of the Chief Electoral Officer’s investigations. We’ve seen school boards, health regions, libraries, municipalities, housing management agencies, universities, and Crown corporations, whether it was Calgary Lab Services or whether it was ATB, all scrutinized and investigated as a result of what appeared to be illegal contributions.
We don’t know the result of those because we haven’t actually seen the result of the Chief Electoral Officer’s investigations yet.
But I think this is an area that has us most concerned because there is this perception among these various contributors that they believe they have to support a certain political party in order to be able to secure the grants that are coming to their agencies. We think that that is one of the biggest problems that we have right now, the perception that there is some kind of relationship or some kind of fear factor at play, some kind of intimidation at play, that all of these different agencies feel that somehow they have to give, especially to the governing party, in order to keep the flow of funds going. We think that this is an area which, once again, we hope to be able to address by seeing more transparency in the investigations. We’re glad we’re going down that route.
I would say that the concern we do have, though, is that part of the reason why this was not corrected when we first encountered this problem back in 2004 was a change in the legislation. It was made very clear that this kind of contribution was illegal, yet it persisted through 2005 and 2006 and 2007 and 2008 and 2009. I think the reason for that is because there have not been the kinds of prosecutions and investigations done by the Chief Electoral Officer. Prosecutions can play a very important role in educating people about what the law is. We haven’t done these institutions any favours by creating a shroud of secrecy over the kind of contributions that have gone to different political parties.
This is the reason why we think it is vitally important that we go back a longer period of time to be able to address this issue. We know, as I’ve mentioned, that in different years we have found evidence ourselves of contributions that appear to violate the Election Act. Unfortunately, the way this act reads is that the government would only allow the Chief Electoral Officer to go back three years. We think that’s insufficient. We think that seven years would be a far better period to go back. There’s a reason for that seven years. It’s not just arbitrary. The decision in the tax code for the record keeping that you have to do to be able to justify the expenses that you have and the things that you write off is a seven-year requirement.
There seems to be some parity here. If people are required to keep their personal records of their tax contributions and tax receipts going back seven years, we think that that would be a nice parallel in this legislation, that we would also go back seven years, identify the areas where we did see illegal donations, and ensure that they are addressed. We think that three years is insufficient, and we’re going to be putting forward an amendment to go back a longer period of time.
We’re also disappointed at one of the recommendations that the government refused from the Chief Electoral Officer. There were a number, but there are a few that I’ll mention in my comments here tonight. First of all, there was a recommendation by the Chief Electoral Officer that any entity, any corporation or agency that received one-third of its dollars from government funding would be added to the list of prohibited corporations. Now, of course, we’ve already said that our first option would be to ban union and corporate donations altogether, but in the absence of being able to get the government to agree to that, I think, accepting the Chief Electoral Officer’s provision that any entity that received a third of its dollars from government would also be on the prohibited list.
There’s a reason for this. We have to go back to the principle about why it is that public institutions are not permitted to give money to a political party. It’s because we don’t want to create a scenario where taxpayer dollars are being funneled through a public institution and then going back to fund partisan political activity. I think that what the Chief Electoral Officer was getting at with this provision is trying to create the same kind of parity. If you’re getting a third of your dollars from a government entity, a department, a ministry, then it would make sense to treat that entity in a very similar way that you treat other public institutions.
We may even want to go further than that. We know that there are other companies who may not receive a third of their dollars, their total revenues, from government, but they receive a substantial amount of money from government, whether it’s those companies who receive dollars through the venture capital fund or whether it’s those companies that are invested in through AIMCo or whether it’s those companies that receive dollars through the carbon capture and storage fund or whether it’s those companies that have the bulk of their work contracted work with government.
The danger that we see and what we’re trying to eliminate here is this idea that somehow the contributions to a political party have some impact on an individual entity being able to receive dollars or receive contracts. Again, we think that this could be cleaned up most easily by banning corporate and union donations, but in the absence of that we have to take a look at what kind of bar we want to set for what constitutes a prohibited corporation for the purposes of the Election Act and make that list public.
We believe that the principle should be that zero public dollars, zero taxpayer dollars, should be going to fund political campaigns through this mechanism of granting and then having it circle back.
We already have a very generous political tax credit. That is the way in which a person is able to get a portion of their contribution back for supporting the political party of their choice. That is a reasonable and appropriate way for people to be able to benefit from a contribution to a political party: getting a return of their own tax dollars. It’s when you have taxpayers in general being forced to fund a political party which they do not agree with where we see the problem lies and why we need to see more rules around what constitutes a prohibited corporation. Again, we want to go back seven years.
We think that there’s another concern with this legislation in that we don’t have any guarantee that when fault is found, those dollars will be paid back. What we want to see is some guarantee that there is some follow-up done to ensure that an illegal contribution is returned so that no taxpayer dollars go to fund political parties.
The other area we’re concerned about is that there doesn’t seem to be any requirement of proof to be demonstrated that the fines have been paid. We know that the Chief Electoral Officer has the latitude to be able to impose administrative penalties, and it’s fortunate that we’re now going to see what kind of administrative penalties are being imposed, but we want to make sure that there is some mechanism to provide proof that these fines have been paid.
The next area I’d like to discuss is the issue of making the details known, and this is an absolute must. We’re pleased that the minister has agreed, albeit in a limited way, that these details will be made known. It’s totally reasonable, we believe, that as investigations are taking place, they take place with some confidentiality. We do understand that there is a potential for allegations to be not what they seem and that when you go in and you take a look at the actual details, you find that, clearly, no violations have occurred. That has happened, as I pointed out, in 30 of the cases. We’d love to know even which of the cases that were made public did not have any penalty levied against them. I think that there would be some value in knowing that so that we can clear the air on some of the allegations that were made public through the media and elsewhere. At the very least we need to make sure that the details are known of those entities that do violate the law and are found to be in violation of the law and the kind of fine or administrative penalty or censure that is levied against them.
We also believe that it’s important for this information to be revealed as we go, issuing a press release as these investigations are completed so that we have the information, so that for those entities that are found to be in violation, it is made clear publicly right away what the fine was, what the penalty was so that the public can know. Again, it serves a really important educational role. We can’t continue on for the foreseeable future with people saying that they don’t know the law. The best way to encourage people to learn the law and know the law is for them to see that when violations occur, they are discovered quickly, penalties are levied, and it’s made public.
The other area that we’re interested in is that we want to see the Chief Electoral Officer able to release his recommendations when he is putting forward proposals for prosecutions. We are very concerned that the previous Chief Electoral Officer had put forward multiple cases where he felt prosecution should proceed, and they never ended up proceeding. If the Chief Electoral Officer, who is an officer of this Legislature, believes that a violation is so serious that it warrants prosecution, we believe that that should be made public, and if it is not pursued by the Crown prosecutor, then we need to understand the reasons why. We think that having this shroud of secrecy around that is not helpful in trying to educate people about where the lines are in this legislation so that they can stay on the right side of them.
We’re also very concerned that the Justice minister did not appear to take the advice of the Chief Electoral Officer when it comes to penalizing the party. We know that most people don’t wake up in the morning and say: gee, I’m going to cut a cheque to a political party. That doesn’t normally happen. There’s a lot of call on our dollars. There’s a call for personal and family obligations; there’s a call for charitable contributions. The chances are that if somebody has given a donation to a political party, it’s because there has been some solicitation. Someone has asked for that contribution.
The very idea that it is the donor who in all cases is going to be the one who suffers the fines and penalties and the public flogging seems to be imbalanced. We need to make sure that there are fines and penalties and censure on the political party who, quite frankly, should have a better grasp of the legislation and where the rules lie. We think, actually, that it’s the political parties who are the most at fault when we see a series of illegal donations, and we think that penalizing the political party or the individual candidate is the more appropriate way of being able to have this balance in the legislation.
A related area that we’re concerned about I think came out of a recent disclosure of tax receipts from a senior health executive from the Calgary health region, a $300 purchase of tickets to, I believe, the Calgary-Elbow fundraising dinner. At the bottom of the receipt the political party had asked: who should the receipt be made out to? We think that there is a potential for there to be another parallel investigation from the tax administration because if an individual has received full compensation for a $300 contribution to a political party and then, in addition to that, is getting a tax receipt made out in their name or the name of a colleague, we think that this is offside with what most reasonable people would think would be appropriate.
We think that there needs to be some language around this to ensure that this is an additional level of scrutiny that the Chief Electoral Officer goes into to make sure that not only are we not seeing illegal contributions from public institutions, but we’re also not seeing illegal tax receipts going out to recipients who did not pay out of pocket to give money to a political party. We think that that’s another area of concern.
Let me turn briefly to the issue of municipal election campaign financing because we recognize that that’s kind of been smooshed into this legislation as well. I think the government had initially started off thinking that the only legislation they would bring forward to change elections law was at the municipal level. I think we were thinking at that time that we would just see a change to a four-year term, but there is actually quite a bit of election law change in here regarding the financing for municipal elections.
As you can imagine, there are some mayoral candidates of some large cities that have already announced their intention to run once again for political office, and they are expressing concern about some of the provisions that are in the legislation. I am sympathetic to that, especially when you are looking at the large cities like Calgary and Edmonton.
The Municipal Affairs minister has already acknowledged that Calgary and Edmonton need to have a discussion about having city charters because the issues that you’re dealing with when a city gets to be over 500,000 people, or over a million people for that matter, are quite different than in municipalities where you may have less than 10,000 people. I’ve spoken to many municipal council members who finance their own campaigns. Many of them had very, very modest campaigns. But when you look at what happens in Calgary and Edmonton, particularly with the last municipal election in 2010, at least one candidate, and perhaps two, spent over a million dollars on those campaigns.
There is some argument to be made that the size of the city may require a different type of approach to election financing. The argument has been made – and we’ll be talking about it as a caucus to see whether or not we can put forward amending language around this. I’m quite sympathetic to the notion that a city of a certain size, perhaps 250,000 people, should be given the latitude to pass laws that are even more stringent on the election side than what is prescribed in the provincial legislation. Since this is the way our municipal level of government operates at the moment, I think it’s appropriate for the provincial government to pass legislation that governs municipal financing; however, I do think that large cities should be granted some latitude to be able to\ put in place their own election financing laws if they are over a certain population size.
I mean, I can imagine how we would feel here in Alberta if Ottawa came in and told us that they were going to set our election financing laws. If we are going to treat our municipalities as another order of government, if that’s what the whole process is that the Minister of Municipal Affairs is going through, to establish that Calgary and Edmonton are truly another order of government with a sense of autonomy in their own right, then I think we have to start looking at ways in which we can provide that sort of latitude to those municipalities where because of extremely high campaign contributions and extremely high campaign expenditures they may require additional rules around how that operates.
At the very least, we have to make sure that we are not imposing election financing rules on our municipalities, particularly Calgary and Edmonton, that are more rigid than what we would have on provincial politicians. That, I think, is the big concern that we are hearing from those municipal leaders in the large cities, that they’re feeling that some of provisions that have been put forward would never fly at the provincial level. The very idea that you couldn’t start raising money until you’ve registered after the writ period drops makes it almost impossible, I think, for candidates, especially those who are not incumbents, to be able to raise enough money and put forward a campaign that would allow them to be able to be successful.
I think that what we would like to see here is an opportunity for someone who is seeking municipal office to have a similar type of approach as we have at the provincial level. At the provincial level each of us has a constituency association, so we’re able to raise money throughout the year. From the moment that the campaign is over, we can start raising money again.
We believe that if we can create the same kind of approach, where a municipal candidate, someone who knows they want to run for municipal office in the next election, is able to register early, establish their official agent and their bank account so that they can raise money in trust throughout, this would create a parity in the way we treat provincial politicians seeking elected office and municipal politicians. I think it would also meet the needs of what we need to see in our two major centres.
As I say, because many smaller municipalities have candidates who self-finance their campaigns, having this restriction as it’s written in the legislation of only being able to start raising money when you register may not be a big deal, but when you look at what’s happening in Calgary and Edmonton, there is just no way that you can have a similar kind of restriction. Otherwise, you’re going to, I think, impair the ability of every candidate to have a fair fight in those local races. It’s important that we get this right now because there are many politicians who are already announcing their intention to run.
I’ve got just a couple more, but one of the last major points that I want to raise is on the issue of a fixed election date. Now, we know that the Premier, when she was running for the Progressive Conservative leadership, did campaign on a fixed election date. I think that if we went back and we were to pull the quotes, everybody would have expected that we would have actually had a date in the calendar that was a fixed election date. It wouldn’t have been unusual. Other provinces have done it. I think six provincial jurisdictions have done this. In addition, we already have it at the municipal level. We have a fixed election date. It’s interesting that in making these changes to the different acts, nobody is messing with the notion of having a fixed election date at the municipal level, so there seems to be buy-in for that at the municipal level.
We just wish we saw similar buy-in at the provincial level. I think that when you look at the Chief Electoral Officer recommendations, this is another recommendation that the Justice minister rejected. The Chief Electoral Officer looked at the current legislation and saw that an election could be held between March 1 and May 31 and every fourth year following, but he proposed that we specify an election date. There were reasons for this, and he has some fantastic reasons here, which I’ll read into the record.
I think that, actually, when you look at the rationale for the amendments, this is the one that had the longest rationale. First of all, he said that it “would increase openness and transparency by providing all stakeholders with an abundance of advance notice of the coming election.” I can tell you that from my own experience in recruiting candidates, the fixed election window is helpful, but actually knowing what the election date is helps people to do better planning. They can figure out the period of time in which they need to take a leave of absence from work or wrap up their business affairs or wrap up some of their personal affairs to be able to run a campaign. To be able to have all of this information publicly available so that everybody knows what the exact date is would allow for all of us, every political party, to be able to have that ability.
It would also provide advance notice to electors, and that may promote participation. We hear every single time we have an election the pundits bemoaning the low voter turnout, the low outcome. I think in this last one we had 60 per cent voter turnout, which was higher than the previous one.
My riding of High River in some parts of town becomes a bit of a ghost town during the winter months, from January through to about May. If you actually knew when the election was going to be, many of those snowbirds would be able to either return home to vote or be able to register and ask for an advance ballot, or they would be able to do an out-of-province ballot. We would be able to get much higher voter turnout. But, again, you’d need to know when the election date is. I remember that there were some of my supporters who left before the writ was dropped and didn’t come back until after it was over. As a result, many of them were unable to vote. Providing advance notice to electors, I believe, would go a long way towards increasing voter turnout.
The Chief Electoral Officer also said that “electors who plan to be away could make appropriate plans for participation,” as I mentioned. “Political parties and candidates could prepare appropriately.” He talks about how “election officers could make appropriate plans for participation, which could increase the number of persons willing to accept the key positions of Returning Officer, election clerk and administrative assistant.”
When you think of the number of polling stations that we need to have in 87 constituencies and to have this constant concern about how they’re going to properly staff, how they’re going to establish the location, the logistics of that take a lot of effort. To not know when that’s going to occur and to have to do it at the drop of a hat is putting undue pressure on that office. If we had a fixed election date, it would make it a lot easier for them to do the recruitment and establish all of those administrative details.
Elections officer training could also “be scheduled well in advance, but near enough to the election to avoid the need for refresher courses.” Once again, the Chief Electoral Officer could see a benefit of having a fixed election date so that he was able to do this rather than have a window of three full months in which he would have to try to recruit people.
People’s lives change. You may decide that you might want to do this work on an election, and then if it doesn’t happen for two or three months, you might change your mind. If you actually knew when the election date was going to be, it would make that training that much easier. It says that “returning officers could serve candidates and the public more effectively, by establishing offices in advance of the election period.” Once again, for those who are travelling out of town, being able to know where the advance polling station is going to be in advance because of the actual dates being known is another way that you’d be able to increase participation.
“Cost savings may be achieved, since the delivery and installation of necessary supplies and services could be planned well in advance, thus avoiding express delivery surcharges and holding charges for reserving necessary equipment and services until they’re required.” We’re clearly putting additional pressure on this office because they’re trying to make contingency arrangements, not knowing which of the three months is going to be chosen for the election date. We would be able to reduce costs if we had a fixed election date.
“Administrators of schools and other facilities often used as polling places could plan their schedules to facilitate their use on Polling Day.” This is clearly creating some problems for our public institutions, which are the hosts of most of our polling stations, and the Chief Electoral Officer believes that this would help resolve some of that if we actually knew what the date would be.
“This would also be consistent with election legislation in other jurisdictions, including BC, New Brunswick, Ontario, Canada, and [he points out] Alberta municipalities.” So this is not an unreasonable request, and I think that it is something that – as we’re looking at moving to a four-year election window for municipalities maintaining a fixed election date, it’s a perfect opportunity for us to consider doing something similar for our provincial office as well.
I’ll end on this point. I think the big problem that I think we’ve seen with the election legislation as it stands and the fact that we have seen so many violations of the Election Act – and we see this in a number of different ways – is that it seems that after 41 years in power the PCs don’t know the difference between appropriate work that they’re doing as government and appropriate work to do as a political party. We constantly see in the Progressive Conservative Party and the government that there’s a blurring of these two lines.
The fact that they don’t seem to know the difference is very interesting because the approach of the Legislative Assembly Office with the opposition parties is quite different. We have all on the opposition benches faced the scrutiny of the LAO when they perceive in any way that the materials that we’re producing or the actions that we’ve taken potentially cross the line into partisan activity.
I remember that our website didn’t get funded when I was the unelected leader because they demanded that my face be taken off the website. They demanded that my name be removed from press releases. These are the kinds of things that we’ve experienced on this side, so we know on the opposition benches how seriously the LAO takes this division between partisan political activity and the work that we do as elected representatives. I think that after 41 years, though, the governing party has not had the same level of scrutiny. I think some bad practices, quite frankly, have slipped into their behaviour.
Fortunately, we have this legislation before us. It allows us to go through, identify the issues, hopefully close some of the loopholes, and be able to give to Albertans a piece of legislation that I think will restore their confidence that the governing party does actually know that there’s a line between legitimate elected activity and partisan activity. But this legislation won’t do it as it stands. We believe that we need to go through and make a number of amendments, many of which I’ve spoken about this evening.
I’m sure my colleague from Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills and my other colleague from Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills will go through a number of others.
Let me just summarize the main things that we believe this legislation needs to do. We need to address the issue of corporate and union donations, and we need to ban them. We need to make sure that there are rules in place that have more strict contribution limits and also that they cannot be skirted around.
We want to make sure that illegal activity is reported and not just for the last three years, going back to the same period as the requirement for maintaining tax records. We also want to know that the results of all of these investigations will be revealed, including confirmation that the fines have been paid back and that the illegal donations have been paid back because I think Albertans are really looking for some certainty that taxpayer dollars are not going to be used and funnelled back to support partisan political activity.
When we put forward our package of potential amendments for this bill, we hope that the government gives due consideration. Many of them have been endorsed already and proposed already by the Chief Electoral Officer, so there is that extra level of validation, and we think that a number of things have been missed from this current legislation. We hope to be able to make the amendments so that we can improve this bill and restore the confidence of all Albertans.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.