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Big Money Big Influence

This Parkland Institute report will help Alberta voters understand the new rules that determine how municipal candidates are able to raise funds for their campaigns, as well as the implications of allowing wealthy individuals greater opportunity to make the elections an unequal contest. Many voters are unaware that municipal election campaigns are not conducted on a level playing field, as some candidates are able to raise significantly more funds to promote their campaign and mobilize their supporters. Candidates who know they need to raise funds from wealthy individuals in order to run a serious campaign will therefore have to demonstrate how their policies will support wealthy people and their businesses. This results in many well-funded candidates who propose tax cuts for businesses and budget cuts to vital public services.

The UCP government made significant changes to the LAEA with the passage of Bills 29 and 45 that set the new rules for 2021 elections. Contrary to the government’s contention that it was levelling the playing field and ‘cutting red tape,’ the purpose of the changes were evidently to provide greater opportunity for wealthy people to have a substantial influence over candidates and municipal election results. The changes made by the UCP government allow wealthy individuals to donate up to $5,000 to as many candidates as they want, and wealthy candidates can donate $10,000 to their campaign, up from a maximum of $4,000. 
In this report we review the funding of all municipal candidates in Alberta’s four largest cities in the 2017 elections that occurred under rules set out by the previous Progressive Conservative government. Some of the key facts in the study reveal:
  • Calgary candidates raised $5,435,750 — more than double raised by all Edmonton candidates ($2,016,926). 
  • Lethbridge candidates raised $46,283 and Red Deer candidates raised $53,884.
  • The average amount raised by Calgary aldermen was $183,739, compared to $70,405 for Edmonton councillors.
  • All incumbent candidates raised on average $103,231— more than four times the amount raised by the average non-incumbent candidate ($23,708).
  • Corporations provided 56 per cent of all campaign funds raised by the city councillors and the mayor of Edmonton, and provided 47 per cent of all campaign funds raised by aldermen and the mayor of Calgary. 
  • In Mayor Nenshi’s campaign, 99 people donated more than $1,000, totalling $227,871 or 43 per cent of his total funds. In Edmonton, 33 individuals donated more than $1,000, for $76,430 or 22 per cent of funds raised. 
  • Despite clear evidence that some candidates breached the Local Authorities Elections Act or failed to properly disclose contributions, there is an absence of oversight and enforcement of the rules by the cities and the provincial government.

The report concludes with eight recommendations that would make municipal elections more democratic and limit the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. 

Co-author Sayeh Yousefi is an MA student in political science at the University of Alberta. She is a recent graduate of Peace, Conflict and Justice studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Bill Moore-Kilgannon

Bill Kilgannon is a founding partner at Real Impact, an agency supporting change through advocacy and strategic communications. Most recently, he was interim executive director at Parkland Institute from July 2020-22. He was honoured to return to this role after having served on Parkland’s founding board and working as the institute’s first executive director. Bill has worked previously in research, advocacy, and organizing in the non-profit sector, the labour movement, and government — including serving as chief of staff to three Ministers under the Notley Government; as first executive director of Public Interest Alberta; and as director of campaigns and communications for the Council of Canadians, where he worked on national and international issues. Bill was born and raised in Edmonton and is a graduate of the University of Alberta and l’Université de Sherbrooke. He’s produced two documentary films on politics and youth empowerment in Nicaragua, and continues to collaborate on inspiring campaigns and projects that make change happen for the good.

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