Tom Flanagan’s article in The Globe and Mail on 3 September offers one perspective on recent changes to general election financing in Alberta. In his opinion piece, Professor Flanagan analyzes the recent moves by the NDP government to alter the electoral playing field. Dr. Flanagan is no stranger to election planning and understands intimately the details of election finance laws.
Flanagan observes that changes proposed in Bill 1, which ended corporate and union donations harmed the Progressive Conservatives in two respects. First, by ending corporate donations, the Tories gave up a huge advantage enjoyed since the time of the Lougheed dynasty. Over their 44 year reign, the PC Association of Alberta collected millions from oil firms, construction and engineering firms, and law firms, whose fortunes were tied to favourable royalty and energy and environmental regulatory policies.
Second, Flanagan notes more recent changes, recommended by a Legislative Assembly Committee dominated by NDP members, will allow parties with greater than ten per cent of the vote (namely the NDP, PCAA, and the Wildrose) to receive public election subsidies. Under this structure, parties with, say 4 per cent of the vote, like the Liberal Party (4.18 per cent in the 2015 general election) or the Alberta Party (2.23. per cent in 2015)will get no financial support from taxpayers. Federal law does allow parties with greater than two per cent of the popular vote to receive public subsidies thus leveling the playing field for smaller political parties.
A third change is to limit party campaign spending to $2.1 million which is less than the Wildrose party can raise but more than the Tories. These changes according to Flanagan will weaken both right wing parties and undermine opposition parties on the left. The NDP can further advance its superiority by continuing with its history of taking union workers to campaign for the New Democrats. “The Alberta government is a government of, by, and for, the unions.” Most cabinet ministers are connected to public sector unions and this explains why little public sector belt tightening has occurred.
While Flanagan can hardly be regarded as a neutral voice on this subject, the idea of restricting public subsidies to parties with greater than ten per cent of the vote is unfair. Why is it in the broader public interest for governing parties to legislative an oligopolistic structure into the marketplace of political ideas and party structures. If competition in the commercial marketplace is a good thing since it gives consumers more choice, then why should voters and taxpayers be given the same opportunities to support political leaders with different policy menus?
That said, Alberta has been governed for the last seven decades by the party of “free enterprise.” These two parties have relied on the oil and gas gravy train which has generated a great deal of wealth for many Albertans but left governments beholden to a unaccountable economic elite dominated the political landscape. The Stelmach inter-regnum could be seen in part as a return to “farmers government” particularly the initiative to revise royalty rates. The reaction to Our Fair Share illustrated “who was boss.”
While it may be true that the present government is a government of, for, and by, unions,” it remains to be seen how much longer it will be able to operate without looking at the public sector payroll. One of the other areas to examine might be proportional representation. In 2015, Wildrose received about 100,000 less votes that the PCs but returned a dozen more MLAs. Of course, the New Democrats benefited handily by the collapse of Liberal and the PC vote. Electoral re-districting will be the next challenge. The number of electors in Calgary South East with nearly 47,000 eligible voters versus Fort McMurray Conklin of 13, 222 eligible voters (Brian Jean’s riding) begs the question of why in this age of smart phones, television, cars and airplanes, rural voters still have twice (or more) the voting weight than urban or suburban dwellers.