If you follow me on Twitter you know that I, along with many different people and organizations, expressed serious concerns about Bill 29. Contrary to a recent video released by our Premier on his Facebook page, Bill 29 continues to give the incumbents huge advantages over new challengers. The only exception to that rule is if the challenger is well connected to wealthy people.
I’d like to cover a few of the glaring flaws in the bill:
1) Up to and including the 2017 election, each individual, corporation, or union could donate up to $5,000 per candidate. That means that if a person or corporation/union wanted to donate $5,000 each to 10 different candidates, they could do that. Of course, the average Albertan is unlikely to donate $5,000 in total during a municipal election so that rule provided a huge advantage to wealthy individuals as well as corporations and unions.
As noted above, this change back only benefits incumbents and people with strong connections to wealthy individuals. If you are newer to politics and your network primarily consists of average Albertans, you continue to be at a disadvantage.
2) While disclosing donations prior to Election Day has never been required, each municipality has had the ability to create a rule around that so that voters can know who is funding a candidate’s campaign. As some of you may know, in 2010, 2013, and 2017, I disclosed all donations prior to the election as I believe you have a right to know who is funding my campaigns.
Under the recently passed Bill 29, municipalities no longer have the ability to create a disclosure bylaw. This obviously reduces transparency in our local elections. While municipalities may not have had a bylaw previously, the fact that they had the autonomy to do so was appropriate. This rule actually reduces transparency and it’s a major step backwards.
I believe Albertans have the right to know who is donating to municipal campaigns. Therefore, if I choose to run again in 2021, I am committing to releasing the names of everyone who contributes to my campaign at least 7 days prior to Election Day. This is not a hard thing to do because every campaign keeps a running tally of that information and I hope you ask every candidate to release their donations before the election.
3) Another major issue is the use of third-party advertisers (aka: PACs). Political action committees often discuss specific issues and occasionally have been used to attack candidates. Anyone who watches US news can see the damage PACs can create to the democratic process.
The issue is not that PACs exist as I think people should be allowed to talk about an issue they are passionate about. The issue is around transparency. PACs (third-party advertisers) are allowed to raise up to $350,000 before being required to disclose who has donated to the PAC. $350,000 is enough to run a mayoral campaign in the City of Edmonton. With that kind of money, you can easily influence an election, and yet there is absolutely no transparency. And unlike candidates, PACs can receive donations from corporations and/or unions. I believe that if corporations and unions are not permitted to donate to individual campaigns, they should not be permitted to donate to PACs.
Dark money has been permitted to poison our local elections and Bill 29 did not address this.
I do want to note that the previous government also failed at fixing this but I do give credit for changes including the one referenced in point 1.
When it was announced that changes might be coming to our local election rules, I wrote a blog post called Local Democracy is At Risk in Alberta. In it I outlined my concerns with the process. The primary engagement involved an online survey that was available for 4 weeks. While thousands of Albertans provided their feedback, the survey results have not been released meaning the changes have already been passed without us being able to see what Albertans wanted.
That is unacceptable.
The City of Edmonton Insight Community does regular surveys and the results of every survey can be found on a public website. If we are able to do that as a city, why was the province unwilling to do that for an issue as important as the rules that govern our local democracy?
Along with not releasing the results, the idea that an online survey is enough engagement for an issue this important is quite concerning.
In 2019, Edmonton City Council approved the formation of an independent panel to redraw our ward boundaries in advance of the 2021 municipal election. We did this because we felt it was important to let Edmontonians guide the process to set the ward boundaries. That ensures there was no political influence. That process lasted for approximately 8 months and they produced this final report with their recommendations.
Why should our local election rules not be determined by Albertans on an independent basis? This government has shown a willingness to tap into the knowledge of individual Albertans on many different issues but when it comes to one of the most important issues, they chose not to engage in a meaningful way.
No Openness to Amendments
When Bill 29 was introduced In late June, it was suggested that the government was very open to amendments to help improve transparency, level the playing field, and ensure PACs are held to a high standard. With that commitment by the provincial government, many different organizations like the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA), ParityYEG, and Ask Her YYC all provided feedback to inform the amendments that would be made.
ParityYEG and Ask Her YYC are organizations working to get more women running for municipal government. ParityYEG is multi-partisan and Ask Her YYC is non-partisan. They put out a joint statement that provided clear feedback on what changes should be made to Bill 29 in order to help more women run for public office. Even though their recommendations would have helped level the playing field, no amendments were made.
AUMA also provided a series of recommendations that would help new challengers run against incumbents, improve transparency, and ensure that PACs would not be home to dark money. Unfortunately, no changes were made to Bill 29 from the initial version and AUMA’s board put out a statement that expressed the following:
“Last month, AUMA asked the provincial government to respect the principles Alberta’s municipal leaders endorsed to safeguard fair and democratic local elections. We are deeply disappointed the government has chosen to proceed without incorporating our feedback for amendments to Bill 29: Local Authorities Election Amendment Act (LAEA) 2020.
This decision demonstrates a lack of respect for the role of municipal councils, our democratic mandate, and Alberta’s voters, resulting in the potential for profound negative consequences for democracy in Alberta’s communities.”
Third Reading Passes Overnight
At about 11:30pm on July 21st, I saw a tweet that Bill 29 was about to start being debated in the Legislature. I quickly turned on my computer to watch it live. I started tweeting about it as I was shocked that something so important would be debated when most people were sleeping and there was limited media coverage. If you want to review my commentary from that evening, please use this link.
To be clear, the concept of important bills being debated after midnight is unfortunately not new. This is a major issue with provincial politics in general. Unless you work a night shift, it’s unlikely that you are at your best at 1 or 2 in the morning. Therefore, why should any order of government be debating important issues so late in the day? If they need more time, they should shorten the number of constituency weeks so they can debate important issues during the day when the public can be watching.
Edmonton City Council has meetings for about 40 of the 52 weeks which is far more than the other orders of government. Most of the remaining weeks we are still working and engaging with Edmontonians to help inform the decisions we will be making during those 40 weeks.
Late night sittings should not occur so that the public can hold their elected representatives accountable.
One Good Thing
While the rest of Bill 29 is a major step backwards, I want to give credit for the one thing that was actually improved in this bill which is not allowing candidates to carry a surplus into the next election. That makes a lot of sense and if all the provincial government had done was add this to the 2018 rules, the playing field would have been made more level.
Why is Bill 29 Important?
I know the rules that govern local elections may not sound like the most exciting topic but they play a critical role in who is elected to municipal governments across the province. When I ran in 2007 and 2010, I had no access to wealthy donors in a system that gave a huge advantage to incumbents since they can easily raise tens of thousands of dollars.
In 2013, I worked incredibly hard to connect with people not just within Ward 1, but across all of Edmonton. Approximately 6 months before the 2013 election I received a call from someone who wanted to help me raise money. These were well-connected people who I hadn’t previously met before. While I don’t think the $40,000+ that I raised in 2013 was the only reason I was given the opportunity to serve the people of Ward 1, it certainly helped me get my name out there even more than I could have hoped for.
In 2017, I chose not to accept corporate and union donations because I did not believe that was the right thing to do and I knew that it gave me such a large advantage over any new challengers. The fact that I have the opportunity to attend so many community meetings and events is what creates the incumbency advantage. When you combine that with the huge amounts incumbents usually fundraise (the average winning campaign in Edmonton in 2017 was approximately $71,000), it’s no wonder incumbents get re-elected 90% of the time.
So by eliminating almost everything from the changes made in 2018 and going back to the rules that I ran on in 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2017, I’ve been given a huge advantage if I choose to run again. That’s not right. I want a system that makes it easier for people to challenge me. Edmontonians deserve a system that makes it easier for people to put their names forward. Unfortunately, we have a system that looks almost identical to the old, broken system with reduced transparency along with the ability for PACs to have a huge influence on elections.
Now that Bill 29 has been passed without properly engaging or listening to Albertans, it’s up to each of you to demand that candidates hold themselves to a higher standard than what the rules allow. Demand that candidates release their donors well in advance of Election Day. Demand that PACs release their donors and refuse corporate and union donations. Challenge candidates to set a maximum amount per contributor that is lower than the $5,000 currently allowed. When you start seeing advertisements from third-parties (PACs), treat those with significant skepticism until you can find out who is operating and funding them.
Even though this bill has been passed, I would encourage you to still share your feedback with the provincial government and your MLA. If you want a more fair system that reduces the advantage for incumbents like me and gives new candidates a better chance to succeed, use your voice. It’s unlikely a chance would occur at this stage but if enough people speak up, it could happen.
While Bill 29 is a huge leap backwards, remember that you still have the power. If you find candidates not willing to hold themselves to a higher standard, you don’t have to vote for them. You get to vote for the person who you believe will represent you to the best of their ability. Big money and dark money will try to influence the 2021 election, your vote is the best way to stop that from occurring.
Written by A. Knack