Civic Election 2013: Taking a Special Interest

In April this year, an anonymous source leaked a grainy video of a closed-door meeting among some of Calgary’s real estate developers. A grainy video worthy of media attention should be enough to make anyone caught on film gulp, and in this case the footage made some Calgarians furious. Cal Wenzel, founder of Shane Homes, was rallying fellow housing developers to pour fountains of money into the upcoming municipal election to kick out anti-sprawl candidates on city council. I’ve been trying to untangle why this video has made some people incensed, while a slew of other special interest groups supporting candidates in Edmonton have become local celebrities.

Wenzel tells the audience in the leaked video that he and other developers had doled out $1.1 million in donations to the conservative Manning Centre and Manning Foundation in order to defeat city council members on “the dark side.” The Manning Centre’s new Municipal Governance Project is aiming to colour Canada’s municipal politics a little bluer by offering training and guidance to right-leaning candidates. At least five of this year’s Calgary city council candidates have received training through the program: Joe Magliocca, James Maxim, Sean Chu, Jordan Katz and Kevin Taylor, who also received transportation and signage help from Cal Wenzel.

At the time, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi accused Wenzel of admitting that the developers and the Manning Centre had collaborated to severely overstep election finance rules. Individuals and organizations are only allowed to donate up to $5000 to a candidate in any year (no charges have been laid in this case, though).

While this wealthy group of developers may well be violating the spirit of the law, I wonder how much of the backlash (such a recent piece from David Climenhaga) has come from a feeling that this amount of influence is unfair, and how much has come from ideological opposition to the ideas.

This year, special interest groups have also stepped up in Edmonton to test candidates’ support for queer issues, sustainable urban agriculture, and arts and culture. Several have published the results of surveys they sent out to the candidates, including Yuri Wuensch’s highly-visible Vote Zombie Wall campaign – focused on keeping out the hordes by combatting sprawl. Wuensch has appeared at election events all over town with little controversy. So have the leaders of Activat ED, a youth-led group endorsing progressive candidates. And in fact, both of the latter appeared on my own radio show, Terra Informa.

Each of these groups has advanced a special interest by lending resources and limelight to candidates, or highlighting their credibility on certain issues. We have a word for that: civil society. Civil society groups, such as think tanks, churches, blogs and non-profits, carve out an important part of the public conversation outside of government and business. They’re a vital part of becoming informed and active in negotiating decisions in a democracy, whether we’re debating suburb growth or clandestine chickens.

It may be more productive to make sure that civil society groups are transparent in their activity, and accountable to our elections laws, than to try to shame them out of town.

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