Calgary

OPINION | Alberta's UCP government is not introducing change, but upheaval

Graham Thomson says the blistering pace of UCP legislation is all part of Premier Jason Kenney's strategy of moving with speed to make it harder for the opponents of reform to obstruct it.

Bill 22 has managed to infuriate teachers, upset democracy and prompt a warning from ethics commissioner

Premier Jason Kenney points to the gallery before the delivery of the provincial budget. He was not in the legislature during the rapid passing of Bill 22. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

If nothing else, Alberta's UCP government has proven itself remarkably efficient.

This week it passed a piece of legislation — Bill 22 — that managed to infuriate teachers, upset democracy and prompt a warning from the province's ethics commissioner.

And the government did all this in a matter of days. Hours, really.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley called Bill 22 an "abuse of power," and has labelled Premier Jason Kenney "the most corrupt and anti-democratic premier in the history of Canada."

A tad hyperbolic, perhaps, but so, too, is the government's insistence that it did not fire the province's election commissioner, Lorne Gibson.

That is exactly what Bill 22 does. Among many other things.

The bill ending Lorne Gibson's role as Alberta's election commissioner is now law. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Gibson was investigating wrongdoing in the 2017 UCP leadership race and has so far issued fines totalling more than $200,000 against UCP members. Now, via Bill 22, the UCP government has eliminated Gibson's job as an independent officer of the legislature.

Notley didn't get a chance to throw her insults in Kenney's face during debate over the bill because Kenney left on a trip to sell Alberta to Texas investors on Monday, shortly after the legislation was introduced, and didn't return until Thursday, after the legislation had been passed.

It was as if the UCP had started a stopwatch the moment Kenney was wheels up and had to get Bill 22 passed by the time he was wheels down in Calgary.

After just 10 hours of debate, the UCP managed to pass an 87-page bill that, besides firing Gibson, shuts down several agencies and boards and, over the objection of the Alberta Teachers' Association, transfers control of the $16-billion teachers' retirement fund to the Alberta Investment Management Corp., a Crown corporation.

Most bills are a dozen or so pages long and can easily get bogged down in legislative constipation for weeks or months. The UCP slid this omnibus bill through debate so quickly you'd think they had greased the walls of the assembly.

And by conveniently skipping town, Kenney ensured his fingerprints weren't on the weapon used to bludgeon Gibson.

Sort of like how the Kenney campaign happily allowed the so-called kamikaze candidate, Jeff Callaway, to attack candidate Brian Jean during the UCP leadership race, while Kenney kept his hands clean.

The NDP tried to slow down Bill 22 by appealing to the province's ethics commissioner, Marguerite Trussler. She doesn't have that kind of power, but she did issue a letter warning any UCP MLAs under investigation by the election commissioner or the RCMP not to take part in debates over Bill 22.

Her letter came just as the UCP caucus was voting to pass it.

The optics here are terrible. But the UCP doesn't care.

Kenney likes to boast about how his party won a "historic mandate," with more than a million votes in the April election. For Kenney, that number is both amulet and talisman. He sees himself as invulnerable.

The government's argument that the election commissioner's office is merely being transferred to the chief electoral officer rings hollow when you realize the government is not transferring Gibson or his salary.

On Friday, Elections Alberta issued a statement saying all investigations started by Gibson will continue under the chief electoral officer, but there is no guarantee Gibson himself will be rehired.

Finance Minister Travis Toews announced Monday that Lorne Gibson's position was being terminated. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Then there's the issue of what happens to the fines Gibson has already levied but are being contested in court.

But the bottom line to all of this is that the UCP government has eliminated the election commissioner as a stand-alone, independent officer of the legislature.

Gibson is not new to controversy or angry Conservatives.

He was effectively fired as Alberta's chief electoral officer in 2009, after issuing a report on the sad state of elections under the Progressive Conservative government.

Over the years, he has proven to be not just a thorn in the government's side, but a one-man briar patch.

Notley, though, remains a giant pain to the government.

She was ejected from the assembly Tuesday for refusing to apologize after accusing Government House Leader Jason Nixon of misleading the legislature over Bill 22.

She's now weighing her options to be allowed back in, but she'll likely have to apologize next week.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley will likely have to apologize to be allowed back into the legislature. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The actions that got Notley kicked out were political theatre. She knew what she was doing. She wanted to create a stir so the news media, in particular, and Albertans, in general, would take a moment to reflect on what is happening.

The Kenney government is not just introducing change but instituting upheaval.

It has been issuing legislation at a blistering pace, including Bill 20 that angered the mayors of Edmonton and Calgary by tearing up the big city charters, and Bill 21 that upset the Alberta Medical Association by tearing up the government's contract with physicians.

This is part of Kenney's strategy. As he said a year ago, governments should "move with speed because speed creates its own momentum. It also makes it harder for the opponents of reform to obstruct it."

The Alberta government has turned on the fire hose, and Albertans, relying on an overwhelmed news media to make sense of it, are left trying to soak it all up with a straw.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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