On February 4th, the Alberta Government’s Municipal Affairs Ministry announced the start of a 4 week long consultation on the Local Authorities Election Act. The current consultation process, which was only announced after municipal representatives started speaking up, is inadequate for something as serious as our local elections and it risks damaging the fairness of our local democracy.
To make any significant changes to the 2021 election at this point would be unreasonable. It would be more fair to new candidates to keep the existing rules in place for this election and then make adjustments as necessary for the 2025 election. That’s because new candidates have already been working on their campaigns and introducing significant changes will put new candidates at a disadvantage, particularly if we start allowing candidates to fundraise earlier than the January 1st, 2021 date that is currently in place.
The Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA) governs municipal elections by establishing procedures around campaigning, voting, and counting of votes. As well, the LAEA outlines the rules for conducting elections in municipalities, school boards, Métis Settlements, and irrigation districts.
In 2016, Municipal Affairs completed a limited-scope review on a number of potential changes including campaign financing, accessibility, and administrative changes to strengthen readability. The City of Edmonton provided a written response to this review as part of the process. However, due to the proximity of this review to the 2017 Municipal Election, no amendments were made to the act.
In 2018, a consultation on the LAEA was completed. The City of Edmonton provided a response to this engagement as a part of the consultation process. Subsequently, Bill 23 made some significant changes to the act, including changes to campaign financing and fundraising, municipal campaign period, and nomination process. These changes are now in effect for the 2021 Municipal Election.
The 4 week consultation by the Province is considering making changes to the rules around campaign length, nomination processes, and how candidates fundraise and report on finances. Re-evaluating our election rules is essential to ensuring our processes are fair and equitable for all current and future candidates.
Considering the importance of our local elections, the process should be done with ample time to consult not only elected representatives, but most importantly the public. Should the process be rushed, as with any public engagement, you run the risk making changes that have a negative impact while also shutting out important feedback and diverse perspectives. Since the legislation is going to be introduced during the Spring sitting of the Legislature, we know that this process is being rushed and that our input is not going to be considered in a meaningful way.
As mentioned above, the existing legislation was last reviewed by the NDP government, which also passed Bill 23: An Act to Renew Local Democracy in fall 2018. One of the changes was to limit the maximum donations to $4,000 per individual in an effort to get “big money” out of local elections. Prior to this change, the rules allowed individuals, corporations, and unions, to donate a maximum of $5,000 per candidate.
While the changes by the previous provincial government were not perfect, eliminating corporate and union donations was a great way to start leveling the playing field. One example of an area where there are still some concerns is with third-party advertisers being able to operate. I think changes are absolutely necessary to increase transparency of those advertisers. I think it’s worth considering not allowing third-party advertisers at all. I also believe other changes such as creating a spending cap would help new candidates looking to run in municipal elections.
Municipal elections are the entryway to our democratic process and the process for our elections must be fair. That’s why changing the rules must be done only after thoughtful & thorough engagement where people can understand the impacts of any changes. The Province has regularly set up panels to complete a thorough review of a variety of issues yet no such panel exists for possible changes to our local elections.
Why are there specific public meetings on this process yet there are specific meetings for third-party advertisers? That is a significant oversight. If this particular issue isn’t dealt with appropriately, it risks introducing partisan politics in a significant way to the 2021 municipal election. While a commitment was made by the Minister that this would not happen, adjusting the rules for third-party advertisers could allow this to happen.
Why isn’t there an independent citizen panel in place to ensure that the process is fair? The City of Edmonton is undergoing a Ward Boundary Review and there is an independent commission in place to complete this review. This process will take over half a year to complete and there have been many public meetings to ensure that people can understand the process and provide feedback. An independent citizen commission should be a requirement, no matter the party in power, for making changes to the LAEA.
The Province is gathering feedback until March 4 from Albertans on aspects of the LAEA. I debated sharing their survey on local elections because it seems flawed (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/B6HFF6W) but it’s important for Albertans to provide feedback about possible changes even if the process itself is lacking.
One of the first issues in the survey is the lack of clarity around why this is needed. On the main page it says, “…we want to address potential gaps that Albertans have told us still exist in the current legislation.” Where has that feedback been coming from? What are the specific problems that we need to develop solutions for? Why is most of the survey focused on revisiting previous changes that helped level the playing field? It’s hard to provide feedback without knowing the answers to those questions.
Another example of the issues with this survey is that when asking about donation limits, there is one option to keep things the same and every other option is to increase limits. There is not a single option to reduce the limits nor is there a comment box for this question to provide a different perspective. That gives the impression that there is a predetermined outcome.
Finally, the short timeline suggests that changes will be made for the 2021 election even though we haven’t had a single election under the new rules set in 2018. Changing the rules more than halfway through this term only benefits the incumbent. We need to level the playing field, not make it easier for the incumbent or those with access to wealthy donors.
Municipal elections must be about ideas, not who has access to money.
I would hate for any intelligent, qualified candidate to back down because they cannot match the funds of other candidates. Candidates may already feel barriers when it comes to running for office whether it is gender, age, education (or lack thereof), race, or any other identification that goes against the traditional template of an elected official. For example, we have heard from groups like ParityYEG that a lack of access to funding is what prevents more women from running for City Council.
We should not make access to funds a necessity. It is our responsibility to make every election an equal one. I encourage you to fill out the survey so that we can ensure that no significant changes occur until after the 2021 election.
Due to the short timelines, our City Administration will bring forward a report to the February 19, 2020 Council Meeting with a draft response to the provincial survey and will seek input and approval to make a formal submission.
Being able to hold a seat in a public office is a tremendous, incredible privilege. But we should not impose limits to restrict this opportunity to a privileged few. I’d like to believe that all you need to run is to have a passion for this city and a desire to make your community better.
This lack of engagement from the Province is something that should concern every person and so I encourage you to speak up and let the current Provincial Government know that proper engagement is required when looking to change our local elections. If we are truly all in this together, which is what Premier Kenney has stated numerous times, then all Albertans need to be treated as partners to work through important issues like this one.
Written by A. Knack