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Calgary election finance transparency ‘violated’ with third party advertiser redactions: Prof

Shocking is how a city political scientist describes the secrecy behind third party advertising donors in Calgary’s 2021 municipal election.

Last week, LiveWire Calgary examined both the amount of money raised by Third Party Advertisers (TPAs) and who or what it was spent on.

Donor names were redacted from the partial set of information provided after LWC filed a Freedom of Information and Privacy (FOIP) request.

The City’s Access and Privacy Office said they requested TPAs to disclose donor information.

“The City was advised by the TPAs that their individual contributors were not advised their information could be publicly disclosed,” read a statement from the City’s Access and Privacy office.

“As such, third party, personal, and business information was redacted (as per sections 16 and 17 of the FOIP Act).”

That means that Calgarians won’t know who funded a large chunk of TPA cash. That includes one TPA that operated almost entirely on behalf of mayoral candidate Jeff Davison.

“I’m shocked,” said UCalgary political science professor, Lisa Young.

“I say that because the first principle of regulating political finance is to ensure transparency, that we know who is giving money to whom to support their campaigns. By redacting the names of the donors they’ve violated the notion of transparency.”

On Monday, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek also commented on the matter.

“All of us that ran in the election had to disclose who our donors were,” she said, while at a fire training exercise.

“I find it very odd that third party advertisers don’t have to do the same. Seems like a big miss. I don’t get it.”

Flaw in provincial legislation

Young said what this all comes back to is a simple public disclosure of donors.

Elections Calgary said they don’t have the authority to publicly disclose the information of third party advertisers. It could only be obtained by a FOIP request.

“When we learned who had made donations to the candidates several weeks ago, we should also have learned who made donations to the third party advertisers,” Young said.

“And the fact that that isn’t required by the provincial legislation is an enormous flaw in that legislation.”

Young said people may have overlooked this aspect of municipal campaign financing. Other levels of government require this level of transparency.

An outright ban of TPAs isn’t possible, Young said. It breaches Charter rights limiting one’s free speech. There are ways to fix it though, she said.

First, limit the amount third parties can spend in municipal elections. Next, look at donor limits. You can also limit who can donate to third parties, Young said. It could be limited to eligible voters.

Two things must be done to correct the problem – at the bare minimum, Young said.

“First of all, clarify what kinds of coordination are permitted between campaigns and third party advertisers, because there’s ambiguity about this,” Young said.

“Second, there has to be transparency. You shouldn’t be able to make your political contributions secret by giving via a third party advertiser, rather than giving directly to a candidate.”