Wildrose vs. Tories on democratic reform
Reporter's Notebook | Scott Dippel
Reee-forrrrrrm! (With apologies on the pronunciation to Preston Manning.)
If there was one area where the Wildrose Party can hit the PCs and hit hard, it's on democratic reform.
On Easter Monday, the Wildrose took its shot. The dart was sharp and well-aimed. To show just how sensitive it is about that spot, the PC Party fired back quickly.
The Wildrose says it will roll back MLA pay. It promises to appoint a citizen committee to make future MLA pay adjustments and it would be done before an election, not after. It will set firm fixed-election dates, not flexible 90 day windows like the Redford PCs. It will post ministerial and MLA expenses online, something the PCs have refused to do.
The Wildrose will allow free votes. MLAs can be recalled if 33 per cent of the electorate in a riding sign a petition in a 60 day window. A referendum can be called with conditions on an item if 20 per cent of Albertans (500,000 people) sign a petition within six months.
It goes on.
Whistleblower protection legislation for government employees will be enacted. Loopholes for government in Alberta's Freedom of Information legislation will be tightened. Next stop: 21st century governance.
The PCs fire back. It says Wildrose will not commit to ending transition allowances for retiring/defeated MLAs like Redford has promised. (Wildrose leader Danielle Smith says it will be capped at 12 months pay whereas until now, there's been no cap. FYI: The formula is three months pay at the highest rate of earnings for each year served.)
The PCs say allowing for a citizen-initiated referendum isn't actually democratic; it's abdicating leadership and a recipe for paralysis. The MLA recall notion is rejected by the Tories as the party says Albertans can recall their MLA through the election every four years.
Now that we have that out of the way, there's an underlying reality here for both parties.
For the Wildrose, it's that the federal Conservatives (and their Reform ancestors) were also big on democratic reform. Alberta voters flocked to them in droves but, now in power, the actual reforms in Ottawa have fallen short of the goals originally sold. That said, maybe the Wildrose could actually embarrass their federal cousins by doing here what the federal Tories have yet to deliver there.
For the PCs, it's that after 40+ years in power, they're now trying to get current. I recall having some time with each of the candidates seeking the PC leadership in 2006. Not one of them was interested in democratic reform as everything was going 'just fine.' When I challenged one of them with the idea that Alberta was falling behind other provinces on things like fixed election dates and whistleblower protection, I was scolded like an errant toddler... told that these things aren't important and people don't care. In Alberta provincial politics, it seems this kind of reform is just not done unless you're forced to do it or you're in an opposition party.
Let's not forget how, what's called "closure" elsewhere to shut down debate in the assembly, is called "time allocation" in PC Alberta. It's used a lot. No one but the tiny band of opposition MLAs even bats an eye.
The reality of the situation is that the way legislation in areas like this typically improves or is amended, is when power changes hands. It's the opponents of governments who raise the bar when they finally win. Then eventually the old party comes back. It either keeps the change or upgrades it further. As governments change over time, the bar is usually raised. In Alberta, there have been two changes of government since 1935. The bar is moved grudgingly, if at all.
For the Alberta voters who bother to show up on election day — and there aren't many of you — given that typically about 50 per cent of you have voted PC time and time again, it's a good question: WHY might democratic reform suddenly resonate with you now when for decades, it just hasn't.
The last time it even came close to registering was in 1993 when the public was so outraged by the MLA pension plan that Ralph Klein had to scrap it. Of course he ushered in the "transition allowance" that all departing MLAs can collect at the end of this month... an allowance that now makes your blood boil 19 years after it was imposed.
One other fun thing. Notwithstanding BC's recent exploration of MLA recall, Alberta has a long history of the concept. It was proposed by William Aberhart's government shortly after it was elected in that historic landslide in 1935. Recall was quietly dropped after petitions against MLA Aberhart started circulating in the premier's own riding. As with countless other examples, the commitment to reform often wanes once politicians get their hands on the levers of power.