04/25/2013 12:57 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta labour group wants probe into construction industry political donations

EDMONTON - A union group and opposition political parties want a review of donations to the Alberta Progressive Conservative party by a coalition of construction companies seeking changes to labour laws.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, released documents Thursday that suggest the companies donated $186,750 since 2009 with an expectation that the Tory government would change the labour code to favour employers.

"Albertans deserve to know that their government is making decisions independent of undue influence, and that our elected officials are using their power to promote the public interest, not to advance the private interests of friends and political supporters," McGowan said.

The documents include emails from members of a group called the Construction Competitiveness Coalition that were released to the federation under freedom-of-information rules.

In the emails, a member of the coalition refers to meetings with Alison Redford in 2011 before she won the Tory party leadership. It notes that "at that meeting she expressed strong support for our objectives and promised quick action when elected. This was further underscored by commitments published in the PC election platform."

Other emails following her victory in the 2012 provincial election say the coalition was eager for another meeting with Redford on the labour file.

One of the emails to the executive director of Redford's Calgary office calls his group a high-powered coalition of senior construction executives, including the presidents of PCL Construction and Ledcor.

"We both made major contributions to Ms. Redford's leadership campaign and to the PC election campaign fund. Other members of the coalition were also significant supporters of both the premier and the PC party," wrote Ledcor executive Tom Brown.

"There will be considerable disappointment and possibly misgivings within our coalition if I do not have something to report next week."

Other coalition members include Flint Energy, Merit Contractors Association, JV Driver, Peter Kiewit Sons Co. and the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.

Faced with questions in the legislature about the labour federation's allegations, Redford told the house that the second meeting with the coalition never took place, which proves the system works.

"It said that someone made a political contribution and as a result of that expected to get access," she said. "As far as I can tell, the story was that they didn't. That's a good system."

Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, who is responsible for labour, dismissed the idea that money is being used to leverage political access and favour.

He said all parties are being consulted through a mediator on possible labour law changes and any new policy will be open for broad discussion before being implemented.

Paul de Jong, a spokesman for the Construction Competitiveness Coalition, said its member companies have done nothing wrong. He said any financial support a company may give to the Tories is part of its obligation as a stakeholder in the province's future.

"But when it comes to making changes to labour laws and regulations, there is no connection between contributions and the government's ability and authority to do that," de Jong said.

The coalition wants the labour code updated to make it easier to manage major projects and to better reflect the use of workers who may belong to non-traditional unions or aren't members of organized labour.

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said the documents show collusion between the Redford government and the industry on the labour law review.

"This premier accepted significant donations from Merit and the rest of the coalition during the PC leadership race and in the last election, and it is very clear that they weren't asking for changes to the labour code — they were expecting them," he said.

Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith said she is concerned about alleged assurances made by Redford to construction leaders. She said it is one thing to openly campaign on issues. It's another thing to have private undertakings behind closed doors.

"The way you solve this problem is you take big money out of the political mix. You end corporate and union donations so that there isn't even the appearance of any impropriety."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he will write to Alberta's chief electoral officer and ethics commissioner asking them to investigate.

It is imperative to discover whether any laws or ethical standards were violated, Sherman said.

"The question is: In Alberta, are laws for sale to the largest donor?"

— With files from Dean Bennett