Everybody says that British Columbia politics is SOOO CRAZY right now because there’s a hung legislature and political parties are cynically trying to make the best use of their leverage. I am not sure why this is considered madness; it looks a lot like business as usual. But, meanwhile, in Alberta, electoral politics have been flung into a void where most of the familiar landmarks hover in a bizarre quantum state of half-being. Just one lone voice dares to cry “Insanity!”
I speak of new Alberta Liberal leader David Khan, who complained last week that recognizable, ordinary partisan activity in Alberta has been supplanted by weird shifts and flows and dances of ill-regulated cash. Alberta’s NDP government regulated corporate and labour-union donations to political parties almost immediately upon taking office in 2015, and a good thing it did: the old ways had to end. But, as plumbers say, water will always find its own level. (They don’t always say “water.” Sometimes they mention the other main substance plumbers deal with.)
Tight regulation of political campaign spending has led to an apparent explosion in the use and collection of political cash for unregulated purposes, with a consequent flowering of American-ish “political action committees” (PACs). Elections Alberta has formal rules for “third party” advertisers formed by corporations, unions, or interest groups, including spending limits for campaign writ periods. They are treated in the law just as political parties are, for the most part. There are rules about loans and official agents, they must identify large contributors, and so on. Party leadership campaigns have to follow these rules too.
But the periods between official elections and leadership campaigns are an unregulated frontier. So are the intra-party manoeuvres happening now in the PC and Wildrose camps, as they prepare for constitutional within-party votes to approve a grand merger and produce a United Conservative party. This sort of development was not anticipated in the law, and so both Jason Kenney and Brian Jean have war machines of unknown size at work on the unity plan.
If both existing right-wing parties sign off on the unity program, a new party will be created, but the Wildrose legal infrastructure, and its modest surplus of cash, will continue to exist as a ghost. The legacy Wildrose cash cannot be spent explicitly supporting the successor party or its election candidates: the intention is to use it for “non-partisan” advertising on issues, or perhaps even just on feelgood, vaguely conservative imagery.
So, basically, if everything goes according to plan, the Wildrose Party will actually become a PAC of sorts. Meanwhile, the embittered “continuity PCs” who were flattened by Jason Kenney’s unity campaign for their party’s leadership seem to have decided they don’t have the power to sabotage the twin United Conservative referendums, and are re-entering Alberta politics as … you guessed it, a PAC.
The “Alberta Together” committee is headed by Katherine O’Neill, who quit as PC Party president shortly after Kenney took over, and includes defeated PC MLAs like Prentice-era minister Stephen Khan and irascible former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel. An Alberta Together townhall was held in Red Deer Saturday and attracted 300 of the disaffected. Alberta Party leader Greg Clark addressed the meeting, which was seen as a coup for him, although Alberta Together will be bound to remain officially nonpartisan.
David Khan may feel that a march has been stolen on him. His Liberals resisted brand dilution and abandonment through a century of futility, yet Kerry Cundal, the (ex-PC) rival he barely defeated for the Liberal leadership this month, was centre stage at the Alberta Together chatfest. “We need bold action to reduce the impact of big money on Alberta politics,” Khan said in a statement issued last Thursday. “Unregulated third-party fundraising and spending are corrupting the democratic process.”
Maybe so. Or maybe it is the democratic process. (Khan raised fears about the influence of undocumented foreign money, and that note may resonate with Albertans.) I am not certain there is any evidence this third-party spending will accomplish much. The conservative unity program has involved a mountain of effort, but if the PCs and Wildrose sign off on a merger, the new party will more or less be starting from zero — and the Wildrose membership, in particular, might not endorse the merger. (This would, ironically, be likely to render Jason Kenney’s position in the PC Party untenable. It is more conceivable that Brian Jean could survive.)
A lot of this Wild West fundraising and political jostling just goes to show how firmly Albertans tune out of horserace politics (like anyone else) between election campaigns, though everyone has formed an opinion on the NDP government by now. The New Democrats benefit from registered third-party activity by unions, and from friendly unregistered campaigning not legally defined as advertising — advocacy, social media enterprise, and pseudo-journalism from union employees.
Alberta is, in short, a world of phantoms right now. How many real parties will contest the next election? Where on the political spectrum shall each one squat? Will dynamic PAC leaders become as important as politicians, or will the fad pass? Do I have a good answer to any of these questions? (Only to that last one. “No.”)