Council balks at campaign finance motion

Largely ceremonial intention was to force provincial government’s hand

Councillor Druh Farrell’s attempt to get the attention of the provincial government has failed. Her motion to council to reform election campaign funding rules in Calgary would not have had much immediate impact since new legislation brought in by the province in 2010 removed municipalities’ ability to pass election bylaws. But Farrell says passing a motion that expresses which campaign rules the city supports and establishing a committee to study the impact of potential new rules could have motivated the province to enact the changes many are calling for.

Farrell says the issue has been on council’s radar for years but after seeing the “absurd” amounts of money candidates raised for their 2013 municipal election campaigns she quickly submitted a motion. Financial statements revealing those numbers were released in March.

“The dollars spent in the last campaign were extraordinary…. I just decided that it was time to at least put something in front of council to try to get the attention of the province” says Farrell. She says some argue campaign finances needn’t be capped because spending huge amounts doesn’t guarantee a victory.

Farrell would know — in 2013 she defeated Kevin Taylor who raised $276498 which was more than any other council candidate. However Farrell argues that spending and fundraising limits would level the playing field making competition between candidates more viable and reducing the perception they are being bought by big funders.

The Ward 7 race was unusual. In most other wards the winning candidate raised far more than opponents and in six of the races one candidate accounted for 90 per cent of the campaign donations received in their riding. That includes the mayoral race in which Naheed Nenshi’s camp brought in $510000 while his nearest rival Jon Lord had only $39000 to work with.

Among other things Farrell’s motion called for the maximum financial contribution any individual can make to be changed from $20000 to $5000 a limit on campaign spending to $1 per resident in a candidate’s riding spot audits of financial statements and a ban on trade unions or corporations from making political donations.

Peter Rishaug of Calgary political advocacy group Civic Camp supported Farrell’s motion. He says he was “disappointed” at the tone of debate in council leading to the motion being rejected. Civic Camp has its own policy proposals on municipal election reform which are similar to Farrell’s. The group’s analysis of the local history of campaign finance found funds have risen dramatically since the 2007 election.

“If we graph that data forward and those trends continue where that goes and how that impacts democracy is of concern” says Rishaug. He says Civic Camp’s issue is with the ability of candidates to compete fairly for votes.

“If a candidate is a strong candidate and has a strong background… and they have good ideas and are a good citizen and they really want to do good public service and they want to put their name forward and they look at that now the new bar is $300000 to try and run a campaign for councillor what kind of precedent are we setting for democracy in this city?” he says.

Barbara Clifford has been Calgary’s chief elections returning officer since 1990. She says all of Calgary’s councillors have told her they want changes but the Alberta government has been slow to return to legislation she says has already been sloppily reconstructed twice in the past three years.

For Clifford the problems with the law go further than how much a candidate should spend to win an election. She explains that the legislation removed her office’s authority to enforce the rules so if a candidate files a campaign finance report that shows he or she broke the rules there’s not much Clifford can do.

“We don’t have any authority to question [the financial report]. We just receive it and they have a 30-day grace period if they didn’t file; they have to pay a late filing fee in there” she laments. “We had one last election who didn’t pay the late filing fee and they gave the statement and nothing happened.”

Instead of giving returning officers like Clifford the power to inspect campaign finances and enforce penalties for contravening them the province assigned Alberta Justice to handle such matters based entirely on citizen-led complaints. She says that to her knowledge Alberta Justice hasn’t pursued any enforcement actions.

Clifford also participated in an Alberta Urban Municipalities Association task force focusing on election reform issues. The suggestions it came up with correspond with those of Farrell and Civic Camp.

With another election under her belt hampered by confusing rules and bloated campaign fundraising Clifford says the Alberta government should repeal the current legislation and rewrite it with an ear to the concerns so many have expressed.