25 September 2013

Buying Calgay's civic election with a little help from Preston Manning

Alberta's election funding rules are notoriously weak. Those applying to municipal elections are no exception. The essentials can easily be summarized: no spending limits, contributions limited to $5,000 a year (the candidate may contribute up to $10,000 of his own funds), and the candidate must file a disclosure statement of contributions over $100. Candidates are allowed to keep surplus revenue for future campaigns.

As lax as these rules are, they apparently aren't lax enough for the development industry, the major funder of both provincial and municipal elections in Alberta. In the 2010 election, their preferred candidate lost to Naheed Nenshi even though, with their generous help, he outspent Nenshi 2.5 times. Perhaps chagrined by their loss, to say nothing of dealing with a mayor who is no friend of sprawl, this time they have recruited Preston Manning to provide a little third party help.

Shane Homes and 10 other home builders are donating $100,000 each to the Manning Centre which is offering a training program for municipal candidates with "market-oriented ideas and principles." For the latter, read pro-developer. The Centre is also funding a new group that will "focus both citizens and candidates on public policy issues." Considering that the group is headed by a Conservative party organizer, is a critic of Calgary's city planners, lists a real estate agency and powerful Calgary home builders as supporters, we can guess what that focus will be.

This third-party manoeuvre has been described by Mayor Nenshi as the use of "Super PACs," referring to those committees in the U.S. that are allowed to raise and spend unlimited funds on elections while avoiding legal limits by supporting a candidate or party but not contributing directly to their campaigns.

In response to his critics, Manning replies that if anybody doesn't like what his think tank is doing, they can start their own. Well, yes, they could, but who can kick off a think tank with over a million dollars from fewer than a dozen donors? The answer, or course, is someone who, like Preston Manning, panders to the rich. Mr. Manning's disingenuous comment reveals the problem: we all enjoy free speech but the rich are able to enjoy it— and exploit it—a great deal more than the rest of us. And at election time, that matters. Without strict funding rules, they can dominate the process.

In order to bring Calgary's municipal elections into a truly democratic regime, a number of reforms are necessary, including much stricter limits on contributions and confining them to election years, restrictions on spending, and requiring candidates to contribute surplus revenues to charity to ensure all candidates start out equally in the next election.

And of no small importance, limits must be applied to third parties. Mayor Nenshi is right—we don't need Super PACs perverting Calgary elections. Meanwhile, in October we will watch with interest how Calgary voters dispose of Preston Manning's developer slate.

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