Cue the outrage over forbidden donations in Alberta politics. Not. - Macleans.ca

Cue the outrage over forbidden donations in Alberta politics. Not.

Even the evidence the Tories are kicking government funds back to campaigns fails to stir a rise

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Cue the outrage. Not.

Chris Young/CP

Over the past four months, many Albertans have taken their first-ever stroll through the province’s election law. Consider the list of entities that are forbidden from contributing to partisan causes—provincial parties, riding associations or candidates. It starts out quite commonsensically. Roman numeral one, corporations owned by the province. Number two, municipalities. Number three, Metis settlements; four, school boards; five, public post-secondary institutions.

In recent months, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives have been caught accepting donations from all five of these types of “prohibited corporations.”

Calgary Lab Services, a subsidiary of the province’s health super-board that recently took over cancer testing from Calgary’s Tom Baker Centre, gave $4,700 to the PC party between 2004 and 2010. The chief operating officer of the company, Chris Mazurkewich, admitted that “this shouldn’t have happened.”

Several northern municipalities were found to have supplied funds to various candidates, most notably Transport Minister Ray Danyluk, who over a period of years invited dozens of town and county councils to contribute to his annual “Cormorant Classic” golf tournaments. Danyluk’s staff solicited donations from a Lac La Biche branch of the Alberta Treasury Branches, the province’s public quasi-bank. The ATB refused, but the Buffalo Lake Metis Settlement and Portage College in Cold Lake, among others, did not. Alberta’s chief electoral officer is investigating Danyluk’s riding association and at least nine others—exactly how many, however, it cannot disclose, because of confidentiality provisions in the law.

The Medicine Hat Catholic School Board admitted to underwriting improper purchases of tickets to a $200 “premier’s dinner” held in the city on Oct. 20 by Alison Redford. Superintendent David Leahy said that spending money on chicken dinners for politicians was a “traditional” practice of the board and pleaded “ignorance of the law.” When originally passed in 1984, the election finance law only included provincial enterprises, but school boards and other bodies were added in 2004.

The University of Lethbridge, hit with a freedom of information request by the Wildrose party, owned up to $15,015 in contributions between March 2004 and October 2005 to premier’s dinners, meet the minister dinners, PC policy events and candidate golf fundraisers. The PC party didn’t bill the university directly, but sent receipts to individual executives who then expensed them. The school issued a statement saying that it learned of the 2004 changes to Alberta election law only in 2005, and immediately introduced a policy outlawing staff reimbursements for partisan activity.

The CBC broke the Cormorant Classic story in the fall, and since then the opposition Wildrose and Liberal parties have kept up a tattoo of press releases about fundraising outrages in the Alberta hinterland. Often the reporting is no harder than fishing around in the minutes of municipalities and public enterprises using Google. The Liberals uncovered a particularly shocking case in late January, discovering that the Persons with Developmental Disabilities Board for central Alberta had agreed to pay to attend a premier’s dinner held by Ed Stelmach in 2005. “Board members will purchase their own tickets and will submit an honoraria claim,” the minutes read. A board member, Ed Johnston, said it “would be an excellent opportunity to promote awareness of PDD in some way.”

The Liberals found another candidate for the shamelessness prize in the minutes of the Municipal District of Big Lakes council, which voted for $200 toward “the purchase of a gift for [a] celebration to commemorate the 30th anniversary of service by MLA Ken Kowalski.” Kowalski has been Speaker of the Alberta assembly since 1997, but held the public works and economic development portfolios before that. As the Liberals hastened to point out, he is stepping aside, like many other PC bigwigs, ahead of an independent review of MLA compensation—and while he is still eligible for a “transition allowance” over and above his MLA pension, estimated at $1.19 million.

So, $200 here, $15,000 there . . . the stories tend to be small potatoes individually, and have failed so far to bestir the Alberta electorate into wrath. (The PCs raised a net total of $3 million for fiscal 2010-11.) A Leger Marketing poll released on Jan. 20 found that 34 per cent of Alberta voters were aware of the various allegations; of those, 37 per cent told the pollster that they intend to vote PC anyway, and 32 per cent were already committed to another party. Only seven per cent said they were reconsidering a Conservative voting intention.

The poll showed the PCs in a commanding overall lead, with the support of 53 per cent of decided voters to the Wildrose party’s 16 per cent, the NDP’s 13 per cent, and the Liberals, 11 per cent. Dave Cournoyer, an influential Alberta-politics blogger, spoke for some when he wrote, “I feel like I should be outraged” about the allegations, “but I am not . . . Is this just how municipalities and public institutions do business in a virtual one-party state like Alberta?”

Premier Redford’s poll performance follows a surprise victory over perceived machine candidates, but in fact the machine seems to have been happy to work for Redford. The CBC obtained an email sent during the 2011 leadership race by Ron Boisvert, chief administrative officer for the town of St. Paul, which was later caught having given money to the Cormorant Classic. Boisvert used his town email account to urge employees, councillors, and even local contractors and businessmen that “in order to keep Ray [Danyluk] in a ministry position, either [Doug] Horner or Redford have to get in as premier . . . it is imperative for future funding that Ray remains in a powerful position.” Redford made Danyluk her transport minister; a portfolio with more power over municipalities could hardly be imagined.

Before 2010, the law put the onus on “prohibited corporations” to know the law; solicitations like the ones made to municipalities for Cormorant Classic entries and prizes were still legal at that time, even if the resulting donations weren’t (as Danyluk, municipal affairs minister from 2006 to 2010, would have known). The mystery is how the politicians and officers of prohibited corporations could have been unaware of the simple ethics of kicking government funds back to political campaigns. And the toughened election law is small comfort, given that Elections Alberta is now forbidden from disclosing the details of its investigations into illegal donations—even if it makes a positive finding and levies a penalty.

“We can’t discuss the results of anything we do,” says Elections Alberta spokesman Drew Westwater, citing chapter and verse from the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act. The illegal-donation scandal may be small potatoes, but the public has no way of knowing the size of the heap.