When Rachel Notley’s government made scrapping business and union donations its first legislative priority after winning two years ago, it aimed to kneecap the corporate-friendly Tory and Wildrose parties. But in doing so, the Alberta NDP gored its own cash cow, too: labour organizations had given $294,000 to their “hey-we-won” campaign, close to one-third of all contributions above the $250 level (below that, donors aren’t identified). To fill the void, the NDP didn’t look far. Most of the big-money donors supporting the party’s re-election are those whose livelihoods directly depend on it: the ones drawing government paycheques as MLAs and their political staff.
In Ottawa, Ontario and B.C., the problem has been pay-to-play—access to government sold at a high price to entrenched interests. In Alberta, the leading payer-players are acting on a different form of self-interest. A Maclean’s analysis found that of the top 100 contributors to the NDP last year, 68 were legislators or staff to the premier, ministers or NDP caucus. More than 150 of them combined to give the party more than $360,000. Most pitched in $2,000 or more; add in former candidates, party organizers, and MLAs’ spouses, and their total contributions surpass $400,000. That’s a sizable chunk of the $2 million Notley’s party raised overall; without it, the party wouldn’t have come within striking distance of the $2.1 million raised overall by the opposition Wildrose party.
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Some New Democrats are privately sheepish about this financial feedback loop. When 2017’s first-quarter results came out in April, they had outraised the Wildrose $373,000 to $345,000. On its face, that suggests the party remains competitive, with broad, solid support that its lousy poll results don’t pick up. But even if small-dollar donations are strong—something party brass prefer to emphasize—the fact at least $70,000 of last quarter’s funds came from within the legislature buildings suggests few in Alberta’s business and professional classes are willing to put much skin in the game, unless their livelihoods rely directly on continued NDP success.
“If you follow that trail of money, you see who their message is appealing to,” says Jeremy Nixon, the Wildrose Party’s executive director. “Our message is appealing to people who are outside our own government team. It’s appealing to Albertans in a way that they are willing to put $1,000 behind it.” Many Wildrose MLAs contribute too, but the opposition’s staff list is far less reflective of the party’s annual donor rolls than the NDP’s.
Alberta NDP candidates are told when they’re nominated that, if elected, they must donate at least $100 monthly. All 54 MLAs met this threshold last year, and most surpassed it, collectively pumping more than $140,000 into the party. Elections Alberta disclosures show the premier’s staff contribute from the top on down: former chief of staff Brian Topp gave $375 between January and March, while deputy chief Jen Anthony gave $4,238.25 last year. Notley’s speechwriter Brad Hartle anted up $1,812.50, and scheduler Miriam Rycroft gave $2,750. In ministers’ offices, donations by current chiefs last year ranged from $337.50 to $5,458.75 (the former from a long-time New Democrat who, according to a source, finds the custom disagreeable and whose reluctance is overlooked). There’s similarly steady support from ministerial assistants and even their press secretaries—$2,000 and $3,000 annual contributions from spokespeople who were full-time journalists when the NDP got elected, but quit their jobs or were laid off and found better pay as NDP mouthpieces.
What choice they feel they have varies from office to office. There’s an “unspoken rule” that aides should give, says one staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, while another says higher-ups will raise an eyebrow if you don’t put up; a third aide felt compelled to fill out a monthly donation form and wasn’t thrilled about it: “It was not presented as something negotiable.”
Notley’s office referred questions to party secretary Roari Richardson, who offered brief written responses. “It’s not surprising political staff donate as well and do so on a regular basis—after all they are supporters. There is, however, no requirement they should do so,” he wrote.
Jim Gurnett was briefly an NDP MLA in the 1980s and was the government caucus director until he retired in January. He gave every quarter last year, for a total of $1,425, but over the previous decade turned up on donor lists only from 2010 to 2012, when he was chief of staff for a two-MLA caucus. When he’s surrounded by NDP work hour by hour, he says, he feels the urgency to donate strongest: “I’m never unaware of how important it is this [work] carries on.”
It’s certainly easier for people like Gurnett to be generous while they’re in government—a minister’s press secretary, for example, pulls in $105,000 a year. And members of Notley’s cadre are not unique in redirecting some of their tax-funded paycheques to tax-creditable party donations. NDP aides who came to Alberta from other provinces and Ottawa were used to feeling pressure to give. Federal Conservatives often give to their cause, and it’s hard to find federal Liberal staffers who don’t turn up in Elections Canada’s donor search. Ian Capstick, a former federal NDP senior official, likens the practice to religious tithing. He recalls the late leader Jack Layton calling on staff to bolster the underdog party’s bottom line, and says peer pressure among staffers could get intense. “Who cares about it more? Nobody eats, breathes and lives this stuff like they do,” he says.
For Alberta’s New Democrats, the novelty of being in government came with 150-plus gainfully employed workers able to cut big cheques back to the NDP. Party members last year proposed an Ottawa-inspired system of publicly subsidized rebates for campaign expenses, only to have the opposition shout them into withdrawing the idea. But the politicians voted in to steward (and earn) taxpayer dollars evidently have their way of getting funds back to the party—indirect public assistance, you might call it—to help their chances of getting elected again.
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