Question: Why is my association contributing to a political action committee (PAC) that supports the New Democratic Party — isn’t the ATA supposed to be non-partisan?
Answer: I keep being told that, in newspaper terms, I have a tendency to “bury the lede,” so here’s the short answer: the ATA is not contributing to a PAC that supports the NDP, and we are committed to being non-partisan.
The longer, more interesting answer starts with the origin of the question. Last week considerable attention was being paid to political advertisements sponsored by Shaping Alberta’s Future (www.shapingalberta.ca), a PAC that had received a large infusion of money from members of the Motor Dealers’ Association. The PAC and its advertisements are unapologetically partisan, explicitly supporting Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and calling on Albertans to defeat the Notley government.
PACs provide third parties access to the political process through advertising. While they can support or oppose political parties, they are supposed to operate independently and the funds they expend do not count against spending limits imposed upon political parties. In an effort to preserve some transparency and accountability, PACs spending more than $1,000 are required to register with Elections Alberta and disclose the identity of contributors who donate more than $250. Unlike donations made directly to political parties, there is no cap on the amount that a person, corporation or union can contribute to a PAC; however, PAC donations do not generate tax credits.
The controversy surrounding Shaping Alberta’s Future concerned the size of the donations received (a total in excess of $375,000 in the third quarter of 2018) and, more problematically, the suggestion that the Motor Dealers’ Association may have colluded with the UCP in expectation that the party, if elected to government, would enact legislation and regulations favourable to the dealers.
It is not my place to comment on these allegations, but in the immediate fallout, it was reported that the Alberta Teachers’ Association had itself contributed to a PAC, namely Public Interest Alberta (PIA).
The ATA together with the Alberta Federation of Labour founded Public Interest Alberta (pialberta.org) in 2005 in an effort to provide an alternative to the political discourse being promoted by the Fraser Institute and its allies. (Full disclosure: I was elected as the first chairman of PIA — my opponent was a plate of muffins). Where the Fraser Institute advocates for “market solutions” to public policy issues, PIA promotes public services and spaces that serve the public interest. PIA is non-partisan and does not advertise or organize for or against any political party.
PIA recently launched Revenue Reno, a campaign calling on the provincial government to fix Alberta’s revenue shortage (spoiler alert: we need a sales tax coupled with a progressive income tax). Other recent campaigns have focused on issues of poverty, funding of private schools, child care, privatization and democratic reform. In each instance, PIA has been pushing for policy solutions, not to see one or another party elected. In fact, PIA is an equal opportunity irritant, encouraging citizens to exert pressure on previous Progressive Conservative and the current New Democratic government to address long-standing public policy issues. This year, the Association will contribute $55,000 to support PIA and its campaigns.
Elections Alberta has adopted a sweeping definition of what constitutes political advertising that includes any advertising that takes a position on an issue that a party, MLA, nominee or candidate might be associated with. Although the activities of PIA in no way resemble those of Shaping Alberta’s Future, out of a surfeit of caution, PIA chose to register as a PAC, as its promotion of tax reform might conflict with a position being espoused by a political party (or, in fact, all political parties) and thus constitute political advertising.
The bottom line is that, like the Association, PIA advocates on issues and not for parties. It and the Association are non-partisan and encourage meaningful dialogue with people of all political stripes on a wide range of issues. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at firstname.lastname@example.org.