The no-brainer of municipal campaign finance reform

Talking about accountability is not the same as practising it

Rarely does any order of government get a no-brainer issue an issue so simple to fix with a solution so obvious that it just screams “easy win” for whoever plucks the low-hanging fruit.

I ran twice for city council in Calgary and experienced first-hand the embarrassing state of municipal campaign finance in Alberta. Compared to the pre-2010 municipal elections across the province we’ve made progress but when you’re starting from zero anything’s progress.

Prior to 2010 you could run for municipal office in Alberta and walk away from your campaign with all of the leftover funds you raised as a candidate. That’s right. If you raised thousands or even millions of dollars win or lose you could waltz right into the bank and cash out paying no taxes and with no accountability. As an incumbent you could rest easy knowing that any surplus from your campaign was yours to personally keep and many did. The consequences of doing that: none.

The word accountability rolls off the tongues of candidates with such ease it’s a cliché during campaigns. As a candidate I almost gagged using the word because I knew how important the spirit of the word was while recognizing how frequently it’s abused. I’ve always believed that accountable candidates will be accountable politicians but following the rules when you can do better is not accountability — that’s called doing the minimum.

With the city charters for Edmonton and Calgary coming soon (apparently) there is a huge opportunity to push the provincial government to establish minimum municipal campaign finance regulations while giving municipalities the ability to do better and enforce those enhanced regulations.

At this point I’ve heard no such talk. I’ve heard criticism of candidates who raised large sums of money that comply with the established legislation even when those candidates went above and beyond through voluntary disclosures but I’ve heard no meaningful talk beyond the 2013 Calgary municipal election on pushing the province to change the regulations.

Campaign finance was a core theme of the 2013 election (and was also a theme in the 2010 election). Sound bites where everywhere about who funded who and with how much but now that the campaign is over: silence.

I’m not going to pin this one on the provincial government. The Local Authorities Elections Act is in the provincial government’s backyard but it is the responsibility of municipalities and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) to advocate for these changes. Of the 19 priorities established for the City of Calgary’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee guess how many are related to advocating for campaign finance reform? None. The AUMA did make a submission to the province in 2011 however even I wouldn’t have implemented many of the suggestions as they go backwards not forwards.

The benign regulations around campaign finance at the municipal level in Alberta are embarrassing but what is even more embarrassing is the lack of action from council on a topic that is a no-brainer. If there is action being taken council needs to let us know because it’s hidden from view.

Accountable candidates are accountable politicians so let’s see some not just hear about it.