EDMONTON — The Alberta government wrapped up its fall sitting Wednesday after Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives debated long into the early morningto pass a controversial election financing bill.
The bill makes multiple changes, including capping contributions to party nominees and setting a fixed election date in late May.
Critics, including the Opposition NDP and some government backbenchers, say the legislation opens the door to wealthy donors tipping the scales in internal party contests.
“At about 3 a.m. this morning, the UCP rammed through a bill to undermine democracy in Alberta,” said NDP MLA Thomas Dang.
“This UCP bill allows for wealthy donors to bulk-buy thousands of party memberships for other people without their consent or even their knowledge.”
Dang said the move props up an embattled Kenney as he faces unrest in the party's ranks and a leadership review in the spring. The UCP is still under RCMP investigation over allegations of criminal fraud in the vote that saw Kenney elected party leader in 2017, Dang added..
The NDP and three UCP legislature members — Dave Hanson, Richard Gotfried and Leela Aheer — voted against the bill in the third and final reading.
Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen, two former UCP caucus members who were expelled after openly criticizing Kenney, also voted against it.
Government house leader Jason Nixon dismissed the criticism. He said the legislation does not open the door to money tilting the playing field for memberships in the UCP. He also said governments should not dictate how political parties or private clubs conduct internal affairs.
“It is already against the bylaws and the rules of the United Conservative Party to buy memberships for other people with the exception of your direct spouse and minor children,” he said.
Nixon defended the government limiting time on debate of the bill. He said there was ample time for everyone to have a say and that opposition — even from within government ranks — indicates a healthy respect for dissent.
“We watched democracy in action last night,” said Nixon.
“Eighty-seven members of the legislature are elected to make decisions on behalf of Albertans. We can’t let a bill last forever inside of the legislature, and those members made decisions.”
Kenney, speaking to reporters in Calgary, echoed Nixon's comments.
"I can't speak for other parties, but I can speak for a UCP (that) does not allow for third parties, like so-called political action committees, to ... bulk buy memberships," said Kenney.
"That's just a rubbish NDP talking point."
The sitting was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Alberta's fourth wave is winding down but the new Omicron variant has been detected in the province.
Kenney faced repeated questions from the NDP on why no action was taken to prevent the fourth wave as it gained strength in August, then crested and overwhelmed hospitals in September, forcing the cancellation of 15,000 surgeries.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley hammered away daily on the situation in question period, asking why Kenney and then-health minister Tyler Shandro went on vacation during that critical period.
Kenney said he and Shandro were in daily contact with officials.
During the sitting, Kenney’s government also signed a landmark daycare deal with Ottawa that is to provide $3.8 billion in federal funding over the next five years. Child-care fees are to be halved starting next year and reduced to an average of $10 a day by 2026.
Finance Minister Travis Toews also delivered a financial update that indicated surging oil and gas prices have reduced this year’s forecasted budget deficit to $5.8 billion — one-third of what was predicted when the budget was introduced in February.
—With files from Alanna Smith in Calgary
This report by Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press