05/03/2013 04:25 EDT | Updated 07/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Calgary Campaign Spending Controversy Reminds Us of Important Democratic Values

A video of a Calgary developer urging his audience to become involved in the upcoming municipal election to "ensure we [the developers] have the eight votes" on council needed to guarantee their policy agenda caused quite a public backlash. It also provides an opportunity to think more deeply about important democratic principles and the need to protect them.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging your fellow citizens to be involved in the political process by supporting candidates, voting, making donations, or even by trying to persuade them to vote for candidates more in line with your (and, hopefully, their) interests. All of these behaviours are part of a healthy democracy. Given the low voter turnout in many elections, more rather than less such engagement is required.

What alarmed people, however, was that the comments in the video seemed to suggest that one small, special interest group was trying to control the outcome of an election for its own benefit. The apparent claim that some political contributions in the last civic election exceeded the campaign donation limits set out in Alberta law was also of serious concern.

Whether or not these allegations are true, the deeper issue concerns the protection of our core democratic values. We must first remind ourselves of those values and then protect them by enacting stronger campaign finance laws in Alberta at both the municipal and provincial level.

Core to democracy is the idea that "we the people" rule our own society. Some of the fundamental elements that make this possible are political equality through "one citizen, one vote," rule of law such that no one is above the law and everyone is equal before it, transparency, and accountability of government and elected officials to the people who elect them.

Political donation rules and processes were established to ensure that undue influence over politicians cannot be bought by wealthy individuals, thereby subverting our political equality and participation.

Fundamental to democracy is the idea that we have an equal chance to have our say in the democratic process. We are all limited to one vote and one voice. No one should have a greater say or sway in the outcome of an election or subsequent policy decisions, regardless of their wealth, stature, or any other aspect of power.

We have rules about political donations to ensure that the electoral process is fair. Upholding the rule of law surrounding elections is fundamental to ensure we have confidence in the ensuing outcome. The suggestion that anyone can get around the rules by non-disclosure of excess donations-in-kind or hiding additional donations to candidates through third-party campaign training initiatives clashes with our sense of fundamental fairness.

Alberta's Local Authorities Election Act stipulates that campaign contributions to a municipal candidate cannot exceed $5,000 in any year. This includes in-kind donations of "contributions of real property, personal property and services." All contributions need to be valued and receipts issued for the total amount. When contributions exceed $100, contributor's names must be reported

Nonetheless, transparency must be improved with stricter reporting requirements and enforcement provisions. Calgary has some of the weakest campaign finance rules in the country. Since the legislation is provincial, Alberta municipalities must work together with the provincial government to strengthen the law.

All candidates, elected or not, must be accountable to the people they hope to govern. Donors must also must play by the rules and be accountable to the public. This joint accountability ensures that there is no undue influence in the outcome of elections or subsequent policy decisions.

Transparency regarding who donates what to whom and whether any outcomes or benefits are expected or provided in exchange is fundamental to democratic governance. Even the whiff of behind-closed-doors deal-making corrodes our sense of justice and fairness.

In a strange way, the transparency the controversial video provides is good because it causes us to think about the fundamental ethical values underpinning our democracy. "We the people" must be involved in deciding how to govern our society. The backlash against some of the statements in the video shows that most Calgarians do not want the political process to be unduly influenced by special interests.

If we do not speak up, participate in the democratic process and work to strengthen its fairness, however, then a self-interested few can step into the void. In the words of the developer in the video, "if you don't support [what you really want], then you'll get exactly what you deserve."

Kelly Ernst is senior program director with the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in