Op-eds | December 04, 2012

The trouble with money

Katz campaign contributions only scratch the surface

Parkland Institute

Many Albertans are deservedly upset and angered by recent news that billionaire Daryl Katz, his family and his company executives, contributed a total of $300,000 to the PCs during the recent provincial election.

The amount represents fully 20 per cent of the total amount of the $1.5 million in contributions raised by the PCs during whole campaign. Sources suggest the actual amount of contributions may be $430,000.

But, if angry, no one should be surprised. This influence that wealthy individuals and corporations now hold over the political process is not confined to Alberta or even Canada: look no further than across the border where both parties garnered more than $1 billion in contributions this election year, and spent perhaps even more.

For Alberta's opposition parties, the Katz contributions are an early Christmas present, a gift that will no doubt keep giving in the weeks and months to come. But the issue of political contributions needs a more critical and expansive look.

The size of Katz's contribution is noteworthy in this instance mainly because he has given it to a major political party. Without as much notice, minor parties are often the beneficiaries of donations from lone, well-heeled individuals - a real boon to new parties that, lacking broad electoral support, could not get off the ground.

For example, the late Francis Winspear provided enormous financial support to the Reform party in its early days. Likewise, and quite ironically, the Wildrose Alliance Party was almost wholly sustained in its earlier incarnation as the Alberta Alliance Party by the contributions of Randy Thor-steinson and numerous other members of his family.

This, of course, is a key point. No one cares much when someone donates their personal largesse to a losing cause. Everyone is entitled to their particular vanity project. Concerns rise, however, when someone like a Katz, or a Winspear, or a Thorsteinson, through the access their money buys them, appears suddenly to have the ears of those in power.

Albertans generally believe there should be a level playing field where one person equals one vote; they do not agree that one dollar should equal one vote. They fear the erosion of democracy when money takes hold.

For example, a 2003 study by Parkland Institute on democracy showed strong support by Albertans for limits on election spending by political parties. Another survey conducted this past spring replicated this finding, with 84 per cent of Albertans wanting limits on election spending; and, by deduction, the amount of money contributed to political parties.

Which brings me to my broader point. Public concern over political contributions made by lone individuals is understandable. But such contributions pale by comparison to those given by corporations, especially (in the case of Alberta) by those in the oil and gas sector and its suppliers.

The Edmonton Journal's database of political contributions between 2004 and 2012 shows that the top six contributors all came from this sector: Encana, $201,710; TransCanada Pipelines, $134,370; Suncor Energy, 124,768; Enbridge Pipelines, $115,600; Nexen, $103,900; and Penn West Petroleum, $99,950.

The bulk of this money went to the Progressive Conservatives, but these corporations also made sizable contributions to the Alberta Party and the Wildrose Alliance; indeed, the latter has become a favourite with the oil and gas sector ever since the former Stelmach government attempted to raise royalty rates.

Additionally, it is important to note that companies often contribute money in much the same way as did the Katz family to the Progressive Conservatives during the 2012 election; that is, individual "family members" often contributed.

A study I conducted some years ago found several instances where a large corporation and its branch companies each made large political contributions to the governing party. I also found several instances where corporations made political contributions that were matched, or at least significantly augmented, by donations from the company CEOs.

In short, the problems of political contributions in Alberta are not confined to the peculiarities of the Katz situation. The problems are deep and long-standing, and unlikely to be resolved by the sniping across the aisles of the two major parties, both of whom are central beneficiaries of the current system of a unregulated contributions.

What is to be done? There must be better regulation and reporting of contributions, whether of actual money or in kind. And contribution limits must be sharply lowered.

Current federal law limits individual contributions to $1,100 per year, while also prohibiting contributions from corporations, unions, and unincorporated associations.

Democracy in Alberta has long exhibited evidence of ill health. There is much that needs to be done, including better disclosure laws and changes to the electoral boundaries.

But curtailing the influence on elections of bagfuls of money, from well-heeled individuals and corporations, would be a particularly good start to remedying what ails Alberta's body politic.Trevor W. Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and director of the Parkland Institute.


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