Edmonton

Opinion | Session wraps, but Alberta's never-ending election cycle goes on and on

The face of Alberta politics was never serene but nowadays it is arguably more quarrelsome, more divided and more hyper-partisan than ever before.

Premier Jason Kenney’s 'summer of repeal' versus NDP Leader Rachel Notley’s 'summer of resistance'

It seems likely that Premier Jason Kenney and NDP Leader Rachel Notley will continue their battle for the soul of Alberta over the next four years. (Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press)

Congratulations, Alberta!

You just survived what was arguably the most divisive, combative and exhausting legislative sitting in provincial history.

So, well done. Take the rest of the summer off.

And get prepared to endure it again. And again. And again.

The sitting might be over but that wasn't the end; that was just the beginning.

The political passions that drove acrimonious debate to last a record-setting 46 hours are still there.

That's why you as an Albertan should care.

The face of Alberta politics was never serene but nowadays it is arguably more quarrelsome, more divided and more hyper-partisan than ever before.

For the first time we have an opposition party that used to be government, an opposition leader who used to be premier, 11 members of the opposition caucus who used to be cabinet ministers.

They may have lost the election but they have not lost their will to fight.

So, you can blame the NDP for injecting a level of obstreperousness into debates that delayed the passage of legislation.

But then you can also blame the United Conservative Party for displaying a breathtaking level of arrogance that peaked when their leader handed out earplugs to government MLAs to drown out the NDP members.

It was Premier Jason Kenney's "summer of repeal" versus NDP Leader Rachel Notley's "summer of resistance."

Many of the 13 pieces of legislation introduced during the sitting were not just fulfilments of UCP election promises, but a foreshadowing of things to come.

Bill 1: An Act to Repeal the Carbon Tax

Killing the carbon tax should have come as a surprise to absolutely nobody in Alberta.

Bill 1 was a clear victory for Kenney — except that less than 10 days after the UCP killed the tax, the federal government announced it would impose its own carbon tax on the province starting Jan. 1, 2020.

Kenney reaffirmed his promise to fight the federal tax in court — but then, as if to rub salt in Kenney's wound, two courts, one in Saskatchewan and one in Ontario, ruled that the federal carbon tax was valid.

Now Kenney realizes the best chance of defeating the federal carbon tax is by defeating the federal Liberal government in this October's election. 

That's why Kenney is still very much in campaign mode and why he has used business trips to other provinces to actively promote Andrew Scheer and the federal Conservatives.

Bill 2: An Act to Make Alberta Open for Business

Kenney's easy legislative ride on Bill 1 didn't last long. He hit something of a brick wall on Bill 2, when the NDP used a legislative delaying tactic called a "filibuster" to drag out debate.

The NDP took great exception to the bill that, among other things, reduced holiday pay for workers and cut banked overtime from time-and-a-half to straight time. Related to the bill (but not a part of it) was a reduction in the minimum wage for young people from $15 an hour down to $13.

Kenney said the changes will ease pressure on businesses and lead to more jobs.

The NDP argued the legislation was unfair to young people and was an "aggressive grab" at the compensation rights of working Albertans. And the NDP argued and argued, forcing debate at one point to last a eyelid-drooping 24 hours.

The NDP's tactic was never about defeating the bill. With 63 seats in the legislature to the NDP's 24, the UCP is the guy on the beach kicking sand in NDP's face.

But the NDP's filibustering was a signal that even though it lost the election, it is not rolling over. The tactic was designed to draw the public's attention to controversial pieces of legislation, particularly those that hurt the NDP's core support: workers and young people.

"We can filibuster forever," Notley declared to unionized workers just days after the election. 

No she can't. The UCP majority will always win.

That's why the NDP had to pick its fights wisely. Filibustering everything would make the NDP look like it was simply trying to re-fight a lost election.

Bill 3: The Job Creation Tax Cut Act

So, the NDP didn't filibuster Bill 3. For Kenney this was another clear election promise fulfilled — lowering the corporate tax rate over several years from 12 per cent down to eight per cent. Kenney said it would spur economic growth and eventually mean 55,000 more jobs.

The NDP decried it as a doomed attempt at "trickle-down economics" that would simply end up as a $4.5 billion giveaway to Kenney's corporate friends.

The bottom line here is that Kenney is pushing forward two apparently contradictory goals: cutting government revenue while also promising to find a way to balance the budget without raising taxes.

He has commissioned a blue ribbon panel of experts to help figure out how to do that.

The solution is both obvious and controversial: massively cut government spending.

But we won't know Kenney's plans until he introduces his first budget during the fall sitting. Kenney has the sitting timed to start Oct. 22, one day after the federal election. The timing is no coincidence. Delaying things until after the national vote means the federal Conservatives won't be tangled up in any bad-news budget from Alberta's Conservative government.

For now, Kenney wants attention focused on how he is trying to make life better for businesses. 

Bill 4: The Red Tape Reduction Act 

Conservative governments always like to target "red tape," even if previous Conservative governments are the ones responsible for the tape in the first place. We don't know what this bill will mean in the real world. One person's "red tape" is another person's consumer protection regulation. Bills 5, 6 and 10 were largely housekeeping legislation that, among other things, approved interim spending until a provincial budget is introduced. Bills 11, 12 and 13 update tax regulations, help speed up certification for out-of-province professionals moving to Alberta, and revive the purely symbolic practice of "electing" Senators.

Now, back to Bill 8. 

Bill 8: The Education Amendment Act

This was the act that launched a thousand amendments. The NDP dragged out debate in a somnambulant filibuster lasting 46 hours.

The government said Bill 8 was merely modernizing our education system but Alberta already had a modern system under the NDP's amended School Act. What the UCP did via Bill 8 was water down protections for gay-straight alliances in schools.

For the NDP MLAs that was a hill to die on. They certainly tried beating the bill to death through debate and amendments. The UCP eventually passed the bill without any meaningful changes but not before the NDP had made headlines at the government's expense.

Bill 9: The Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act

Finally, we come to Bill 9, which has allowed the government to delay contract negotiations with 180,000 public sector workers who include pretty much anybody paid by the provincial government, from nurses to teachers to sheriffs.

The government says it simply wants to put off the talks until it has a better idea of the province's finances.

Unions quite logically suspect Kenney is delaying talks until after he introduces a slash-and-burn provincial budget that may include wage rollbacks for public sector workers. Unions are now talking openly about labour action, including strikes if Kenney targets them in the budget.

It was this superheated debate over Bill 9 late on the evening of June 19 that led to Kenney handing out earplugs to his caucus members.

Outraged NDP politicians at the time accused the government of acting like undemocratic bullies.

Outraged UCP politicians accused the opposition of having turned legislative debate into a verbal riot.

And that's a wrap

That's pretty much how the session ended after seven gruelling weeks, with both sides accusing the other of ignoring democracy and failing Albertans.

They're taking the summer off but not to cool down. What we saw in the summer session will be repeated in the fall, especially if Kenney tables a tough-news budget. And we can expect the same to repeat for the next four years.

Just as the Conservatives began aggressively planning the NDP's downfall after the 2015 election, the NDP is doing the same now to the UCP.

We are in a never-ending election cycle where our politics and our legislative sittings will be more divisive, combative and exhausting than ever before.

Enjoy the summer break.

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.