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Election watchdog drops probe into ATA advertising

February 23, 2016 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
This advertising campaign from last year’s provincial election prompted a complaint to Alberta’s chief electoral officer, who recently informed the Alberta Teachers’ Association that he was ceasing his investigation.

An investigation into a complaint that the Alberta Teachers’ Association broke the province’s third-party advertising rules during last year’s provincial election has ended.

“I hold the opinion that there are insufficient grounds to warrant the continuation of the investigation,” wrote chief electoral officer Glen Resler in a letter dated Feb. 2, 2016.

The investigation began because of a complaint about Association flyers promoting the website The campaign was aimed at making public education a top-of-mind election issue. In keeping with the ATA’s policy of remaining non-partisan, the campaign was intended to steer clear of promoting a particular party, candidate or taking a position on an issue associated with a specific party or candidate.

Such an endorsement would trigger restrictions contained in the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act that require third-party advertisers to register and subject them to spending limits.

After receiving a complaint about flyers being distributed in St. Albert in late April of 2015, Resler sent the Association a letter stating that he was beginning an investigation. He also recommended that the ATA either cease and desist its election advertising, come into compliance with the law, or register as a third-party advertiser.

Instead, the Association’s lawyer, Jim Casey of Field Law, sent a letter seeking disclosure of the complaint and the name of the complainant, and asking that the investigation be stopped. The letter argued that the Association flyer was not political advertising as defined by the law, and further argued that if the Association’s advertising was prohibited by provincial legislation, then the Association would take the position that the legislation breached its right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Resler did not share the complaint or the complainant’s identity, as requested. His only response came nine months later in the form of the letter received in early February.

“Though I have ceased this investigation, I encourage the ATA to consider registering as a third-party advertiser,” Resler’s letter states.

This recommendation illustrates “a fundamental disagreement” between the office of the chief electoral officer and the Association about the nature of the ATA’s advertising, said associate executive secretary Dennis Theobald.

“Frankly, we believe that we were clean in the last election and that really there’s no need to change our practices,” he said.

“We have a great deal of respect for the office of the chief electoral officer, and we also understand and support the intention of imposing limitations on third-party advertising. There are all sorts of examples where third-parties have hijacked elections and in some cases spent millions of dollars to try to obtain the outcomes they want.”

However, the Association is always careful to remain non-partisan, Theobald said, restricting its messaging to asking voters to consider the importance of public education and asking themselves which candidate or party is best positioned to deal with public education issues.

“We don’t take a position on what the correct answer to that question is,” Theobald said. “We ask people to ask themselves the question and answer it for themselves.”❚

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