Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced two major pieces of legislation this week, in what he calls a historic democratic reform package. According to him, it is one of the most substantial changes to democracy in Alberta since the province’s founding in 1905.
The problem, however, is that both pieces of legislation are substantially flawed, not delivering on basic expectations that United Conservative Party voters had of Kenney’s first term as premier.
Bill 51 and Bill 52 are legislative acts that aim to give Albertans the power to initiate referendums and recall deficient MLAs, respectively. Both are tools that are very popular with Albertans, although to say that both pieces of legislation miss the mark would be an understatement.
Bill 51, the Citizen Initiative Act, would allow Albertans to directly petition for policy changes and initiate referendums. The bill prescribes a requirement of 10–20 per cent of the province's electorate signing a petition within 90 days, with the total number required depending on the gravity of the issue. In either case, it provides the opportunity for ne'er-do-wells and incompetent politicos to poison the well for the entire province on any given issue. If a petition fails, it fails for everyone, as according to the law, the issue cannot be brought up again for at least five years.
Sure, it might not make sense to vote on any single topic several times within a decade, but that is not what this law prohibits — it prohibits a simple petition from being brought up again, should it fail for any reason.
This means, for example, that all someone would need to do to stop Alberta separation from getting on any ballot is register a petition with the chief electoral officer, and purposefully not reach the required half a million signatures within the short three-month timeline. The policy would create a rat race of would-be campaigners to be the first to register their petition with the chief electoral officer. The first in, and likely the least prepared, would have the sole opportunity to succeed or fail. Odds are on the latter.
The same can be said for Bill 52, the Recall Act. All any MLA who was at risk of recall would need to do is officially start the petition and fail. That would then shelter that MLA, and if it was planned right, the public might not even be any the wiser.
This legislation has been long awaited by conservative populists in the province, but it seems they will be waiting longer for any opportunity to have a serious say in the democratic process of this province in between election years.