One-third of recent Alberta board appointees are longtime conservative donors

One-third of the 61 newly appointed members sitting on Alberta boards and commissions (ABCs) have contributed to provincial conservative parties, political action committees and political candidates over the past five years, CBC News has learned.

In August, Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government came under opposition fire after mass-appointing new members of provincial boards before the old members' terms had expired.

These positions included appointments to Alberta Health Services (AHS), the Workers Compensation Board (WCB), the Human Rights Commission and the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC).

CBC analyzed data from Elections Alberta.

It shows that since 2014, 23 people out of the 61 recently appointed to ABCs donated $175,204 to the United Conservative Party, its founding parties (the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives), their candidates and the conservative political action committees supporting them.

A large portion of the donations, $100,000, came after 2017, the year the United Conservative Party was formed.

Not everyone recently appointed to these boards was a conservative donor — 34 people didn't make political donations in the past five years. And four of the appointees donated to political parties or causes outside of the conservative camp.

Appointments 'in line' with goals

In a statement, the premier's office says these appointments have nothing to do with money.

"Political donations did not play a part in any appointments," read a statement by Harrison Fleming, deputy press secretary in the premier's office.

"If you look at the donation history of each new appointee, I am sure you would find some who donated to a variety of organizations across the political spectrum."

Fleming said the new appointments reflect deeply qualified individuals who are "in line" with the government's stated goals.

The NDP did the same thing. What was different about the NDP is they didn't fire people. They waited for terms to expire and then brought in their own people - Duane Bratt, MRU political scientist

This doesn't surprise Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University. He says the government didn't have an application procedure, so they had to pick from people they knew: former candidates, party volunteers and donors. 

"This is pure and simple patronage appointments," he said. "I mean, the NDP did the same thing. What was different about the NDP is they didn't fire people. They waited for terms to expire and then brought in their own people."

Top contributors among appointees:

CBC contacted all of the listed top donors for a response. Most either declined to comment or did not respond to an interview request.

Political scientist Keith Brownsey at Mount Royal University said the donations are significant, and the appointments themselves show an effort by the current government to rid boards of NDP influence.

"I'm not saying [they're] not qualified, but, you know, they did donate large sums, considerable sums of money," he said. "In several cases, really a lot." 

He says it's patronage as Bratt described, but for a purpose.

Adrienne Lamb/CBC

Brownsey says many institutions, especially health and post-secondary, are bracing for cuts and sweeping changes under this new government. And so installing people on those boards who have a history of being conservative allies helps.

"These people may be there to simply monitor their cuts," he said. "To ensure that these institutions follow government policy."

And Bratt agrees.

System now centralized

"By putting their own people on the board of governors who are in charge of the budget, it will be less likely that there will be pushback from those institutions against the government," Bratt said.

There are about 270 ABCs listed on the Government of Alberta website, and the premier's office pointed out many of the positions are volunteer-based.

But, as Bratt pointed out, the unpaid positions are often prestigious and hold a lot of influence. 

As of September, recruitment to ABCs is being centralized under the Public Agency Secretariat.