“Bill 81 has always been about strengthening the democratic process in our province.” – Kaycee Madu, Justice Minister.
“[Bill 81 is] one of the most overt antidemocratic moves we’ve seen from the current government in this place.” – Sarah Hoffman, NDP MLA
This is your lucky day! An unknown benefactor just bought you a membership in the UCP without your knowledge or consent.
Gosh, I don’t know. let’s check out the debate in the House on the last day of the fall sitting and find out.
Just delivering campaign promises
Law students are taught to interpret legislation by asking themselves: what problem is this statute trying to fix? If the answer isn’t obvious on the face of the legislation, we turn to Hansard which records the debate in the House.
Justice minister Madu told the House that the purpose of Bill 81 (the Election Statutes Amendment Act) is to deliver on the UCP’s campaign promises to:
- Remove big money and foreign money from Alberta politics
- Close the Alberta Federation of Labour “loophole” that allowed the AFL to pour “millions…into funding the NDP campaign”
- Ensure only Albertans could impact the outcome of an election
Sounds very UCP, right. So why did three UCP MLAs (Leela Aheer, Richard Gotfried, David Hanson), and the two independents (former UCP MLAs Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen) join the NDP in voting against it?
Because Bill 81 made changes that are undemocratic.
Becoming a member of a political party just got a whole lot easier
The amendment that received the most airtime was the one that tacitly authorizes people to purchase party memberships for someone else without their knowledge or consent…in bulk. (Aheer said she, her husband and her kids could purchase 1600 memberships).
Before Bill 81, section 25 of the Election Finances Contribution and Disclosure Act addressed the characterization of an annual party membership. A fee of $50 or less was not considered a political contribution, anything above the $50 threshold was considered a political contribution.
After Bill 81, the section says an annual membership fee paid by a person on behalf of another person for that person’s membership is considered a political contribution by the person who paid the fee. This adds a new wrinkle that acknowledges the legality of X purchasing a membership for Y and characterizing that transaction as a political contribution.
The critics argue…
The dissenting UCP MLAs fought to amend Bill 81 by adding words to the effect that X could not buy a membership for Y without Y’s knowledge or consent. The government rejected this amendment.
The dissenting UCP MLAs and independent MLAs argued the ability to buy memberships in “bulk” would allow special interest groups to change the outcome of nomination races (and leadership races?). It would legalize something that had been illegal in the past, and it goes to the heart of the ongoing RCMP investigation into fraud, forgery, and bribery in the last leadership race. Questions were raised with respect to electronic voting and what happens when these bulk memberships are transferred to a PIN.
All the critics argued the amendment was undemocratic because “membership brokers” delivering “bulk participants” would have greater influence and access to power and “bulk participants” are not connected to the candidates the way “aware participants” who donate their time and money are.
The government replies…
If the government wants to pass a piece of legislation that is so controversial its own caucus members can’t support it, it must be able to provide a cogent rationale for the amendment.
It should be able to answer the question: what problem is this statute intended to solve?
Guess what. It failed.
The government’s justification of Bill 81 can be boiled down to this:
- It’s always been legal for X to buy a membership for Y. The Chief Electoral Officer disagreed. Madu said the Chief Electoral Officer was wrong.
- The NDP are fussing because the UCP’s nomination races are competitive and theirs aren’t. How is this relevant and how does it address the UCP MLAs request for an amendment saying X can’t buy Y a membership without Y’s knowledge and consent?
- It’s a privilege to serve as an MLA under the leadership of the man who sat next to the greatest prime minister (Harper) the country every had. Relevance?
- You can’t impute what you cannot impute…Lord Denning, greatest jurist…House of Lords. Entertaining but irrelevant.
- The dissenting UCP MLAs can’t delay the bill just because they don’t like it. Madu said he was concerned about the public health measures but that didn’t mean he was going “to destroy the government.” Irrelevant and bombastic.
- The UCP by-laws prohibit X from buying a membership for Y. Irrelevant and hardly reassuring given that the by-laws can be changed with the stroke of a pen and the guy who holds the pen is the same guy who’s pushing Bill 81.
Scared and embarrassed
The government rammed the bill through by invoking closure for the 25th time (the NDP resorted to closure 4 times during their entire term).
Why the rush?
Independent ex-UCP MLA Loewen says Bill 81 was flawed and the government was scared and embarrassed that its own caucus wanted to amend it.
The other explanation is Jason Kenney wanted Bill 81 in place in plenty of time for the UCP leadership review and possible leadership race against his nemesis, Brian Jean, who won the UCP nomination for the upcoming by-election with 68% of the vote by running an “oust Kenney” campaign.
On the bright side, Bill 81 declared the last Monday in May four years after the previous election as election day. Woo hoo!
Until then if you find a UCP membership under the Christmas tree keep it as a relic of the bygone party that Jason Kenney started and destroyed in four short years.
*Updated to correct the reference to Brian Jean winning the UCP nomination, not the by-election.