By Janet Keeping
Alberta’s ND government proposes to partially rebate campaign expenses but only where candidates earn at least 10% of the vote. Such a move would be unfair to smaller parties struggling to build support and constitute an undemocratic abuse of political power.
The proposal to rebate expenses only for candidates receiving at least 10 % of the vote is wrong in principle because it puts smaller parties at a further disadvantage at the very time many people in Canada are demanding that our voting system should be fairer. The often-heard call to replace the current winner-take-all (first-past-the-post, FPTP) electoral system with some form of proportional representation (PR) is based primarily on the recognition we need greater fairness in voting. The ND government’s proposal to not rebate the expenses of candidates who get less than 10% of the vote diminishes the likelihood that voices speaking for minority views in Alberta will be heard and will further alienate many people from the political process.
The measure may as well be unconstitutional as violating the right to the equal benefit and protection of the law under section 15 of the Charter. Voters who support the smaller parties are discriminated against by a system that denies their preferred candidates the rebates available to others.
It’s clear that some differences in treatment under electoral laws may be acceptable. For example, most PR systems require that a party achieve a certain minimum percentage of the vote before any of their candidates can be elected on a party list basis. Although some use a lower figure (3 or 4 %), many countries impose a 5% threshold. Such a minimum could perhaps be justified under section 1 of the Charter as “demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.” There is a certain logic to imposing some kind of threshold and the 5% figure is used elsewhere.
But putting the candidates from smaller parties at the additional disadvantage of not getting the rebate if they do not meet a 10% threshold (twice the already conservative 5% number for electing people under PR) would be considerably more difficult to justify.
As commentators have been quick to point out, the NDs’ proposed 10% cut-off seems motivated by a desire to keep the political scene in Alberta less cluttered on the non-conservative side. Even if reducing that clutter is a good idea, it should be achieved through legitimate means – such as through vigorous debate on competing policies which would weed out parties that don’t have any distinctive ideas to contribute – not through abuse of power.
And because the proposed measure looks like an abuse of power, it reflects very badly on the premier, her Cabinet and caucus. On most days the sixteen month-old ND government still seems to many Albertans like a vast improvement over the cynical, power-obsessed PC governments we endured for so many years. But should it adopt this measure, the provincial government will show itself to be cut from the same cloth: instead of a progressive political force, the NDs will reveal themselves as just another bunch of power mongers as eager to use dubious means to suppress political competition as any of Alberta’s earlier governments.
Everyone wanting an improved democracy and fairer electoral system in Alberta should encourage the provincial government to retract the proposal that only the already better established political forces should have their campaign expenses refunded.
Janet Keeping is leader of the Green Party of Alberta.
A somewhat different version of this blog first appeared on the Troy Media website: http://www.troymedia.com/2016/09/20/change-election-expenses-attack-alberta-democracy/