Last-minute bickering aside, Alberta democratic reform committee wants to continue work

An all-party legislature committee on democratic reform ended its work Friday by making a recommendation to continue following a last-minute fight over who was responsible for delays.

Alberta's special committee on ethics and accountability had a year to review 4 laws

Opposition MLAs on Alberta's ethics and accountability committee listen to debate Friday morning. (Emilio Avalos/CBC )

An all-party legislature committee on democratic reform ended its work Friday by making a recommendation to continue until next March, following a last-minute fight over who was responsible for delays.

The special committee on ethics and accountability had one year to review four pieces of legislation dealing with conflicts of interest, elections rules, political financing and whistleblower protection.

The committee's mandate expires Wednesday with many issues remaining untouched. After a morning of congenial behaviour, MLAs blamed each for the lack of progress in the committee's final hour.

Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon reminded them they only met six times in the first seven months of its mandate.

"The members opposite want to talk about the facts? They didn't call a meeting," Nixon said.

"Shutting down this committee and trying to give a blank cheque to whatever the NDP government have planned for the fall session would be highly inappropriate."

NDP MLA Chris Nielsen said the committee didn't meet as much at the start because they were seeking feedback from the public.

"To sit here and say we should have been meeting before we even had that info or even the research request from legislative staff, I think is a little bit reckless," he said.

A report that will go to the legislature will only deal with recommendations for changing whistleblower protections, in addition to the recommendation to continue until March 2017.

Good work done 

Despite the ongoing conflicts, opposition members said good work was done by the committee.

Alberta Party leader Greg Clark argued in favour of the extension, saying it is unprecedented for a legislative committee to review four pieces of legislation in one year.

"It isn't possible. It can't be done in a thoughtful and thorough way," Clark said.

"I think we owe it to Albertans to reconstitute this committee in its current form and try again and keep going. It's going to take a little bit of time and man, is it worth it."

The committee was announced in June 2015 by Premier Rachel Notley and Wildrose Official Opposition Leader Brian Jean, a nod to the desire by both parties to reform government after 44 years of PC governance.

However, after the committee stepped up its meetings this spring, opposition MLAs were angry that as chair, NDP chairwoman Jessica Littlewood always voted with the NDP on tie-breaking votes.

The committee erupted in conflict on Monday over allegations Littlewood breached the rules by calling an opposition member outside of the committee.

Littlewood recused herself from the chair for the day to get the committee to focus on the agenda.

The incident prompted government house leader Brian Mason, a member of cabinet, to call the committee's behaviour "disgusting" and to muse about whether the committee should be ended.

PC MLA Richard Starke called Mason's remarks out of line and "offside" for trying to interfere in the work of the committee. 

"His suggestions on Tuesday that this committee could simply be scrapped because of the work that was being done by opposition members are completely and totally out of line," Starke said. 

The committee accomplished some work Friday morning. MLAs passed a motion requiring third-party entities like political action committees, or PACs, to register if they plan to spend $1,000 on political advertising.

The motion also calls for these bodies to report their contribution and expenses to Elections Alberta on a quarterly basis.

Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler confirmed these bodies are not regulated outside of the election period.

Resler told the committee that Elections Alberta would need more resources to handle these additional reporting requirements.