Three United Conservative MLAs voted against their government's own elections financing bill last night as tensions within the UCP caucus about Premier Jason Kenney's leadership exploded in the final hours of the fall sitting of the Alberta legislature.
Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA Dave Hanson, Chestermere-Strathmore MLA Leela Aheer and Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried were opposed to the bill which they believe would allow wealthy donors to purchase party memberships in bulk to influence leadership votes and nomination races without the consent or knowledge of the recipients.
The three MLAs made an unusual break with caucus solidarity by voting against third and final reading of Bill 81, the Elections Statutes Amendment Bill, 2021 (2).
The vote came after Hanson and Aheer tried to introduce or pass amendments to close the membership loophole.
They were joined by Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen — two former UCP MLAs who were removed from the caucus after speaking out about Kenney — and members of the NDP in voting against the bill.
The votes by Aheer, Hanson and Gotfried are yet another sign the UCP caucus is not united behind Kenney's leadership.
The issue has simmered throughout the six-week fall sitting. Opposition MLAs now fear bulk purchasing of UCP memberships could influence Kenney's leadership review in April.
Hanson wanted to introduce an amendment in the committee-of-the-whole stage of debate that would ensure a membership could not be purchased without the written consent of the recipient.
UCP MLA accuses ministers of filibustering
The proposal never made it to the legislature floor.
A time allocation motion limited debate to one hour. Deputy house leader Joseph Schow, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver, Justice Minster Kaycee Madu and government house leader Jason Nixon tried to eat up the time by speaking to a different amendment introduced by the NDP.
"Time allocation is one thing, but when members of cabinet stand up and filibuster the whole process, it's embarrassing to me," Hanson later told the house.
"Very disappointed that I couldn't get this simple amendment put across that I think could have been supported and would have made this bill better."
Hanson revealed that he had alerted Madu, the minister who sponsored Bill 81, about his upcoming amendment the previous day. He said the proposed change would have added seven words to the bill.
"I just wanted to add, 'With the written consent of that person,'" Hanson said.
"Is that unreasonable? I didn't think it was unreasonable."
Aheer's proposed amendment to delay third reading of the bill was also defeated. The bill was passed just before 3 a.m. Wednesday, ending the fall sitting of the legislature. The assembly is adjourned until February.
Political parties are private clubs, minister says
Hours later at a news conference with reporters, Nixon denied the new measure could be used fraudulently. He said UCP rules prohibit people from buying party memberships for anyone besides their spouse and minor children.
He also denied cabinet ministers and Kenney loyalists deliberately blocked Hanson's amendment from reaching the floor.
Nixon said political parties are private clubs and the legislature shouldn't interfere with their operations.
"What do we do next?" Nixon asked. "Start to interfere with the membership process of cross-country ski groups or the local fish-and-game club or the local church? Of course not.
"We have got to make sure that legislation that passes does not impact other parties just because we're trying to manage our party."
Glen Resler, Alberta's chief electoral officer, said in a bulletin earlier this month that buying party and constituency association memberships for others is not allowed under Alberta's Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act.
But Madu, in debate Monday night, said Resler's interpretation was wrong.
"The EFCDA does not provide a prohibition on membership purchase by someone else," he said.
NDP House leader Christina Gray said the bill's passage was a shameful attack on democracy. Both she and Thomas Dang, NDP critic for democracy and ethics, reminded Albertans that the RCMP is still investigating allegations of elections fraud in the 2017 UCP leadership race won by Kenney.
Gray took issue with Nixon's characterization of the Bill 81 debate as evidence of democracy in action.
"The limiting of debate and then the government filibustering to prevent any new amendments coming in was not democracy in action," Gray said.
The debate revealed the UCP caucus was opposed to measures in the bill which prompted some of the amendments Madu introduced on Monday night.
The minister told the house he met four times with caucus members to discuss their concerns. Bill 81 originally allowed unlimited donations to nomination candidates so Madu introduced an amendment to cap annual contributions to $4,000 per donor.
UCP MLAs were concerned they could be outspent by nomination challengers backed by donors with deep pockets.