Albertans should be taking notice of Bill 81. Here's why

Bill 81 sparked a furious debate in the legislative assembly and kept MLAs up sleepless until 3 a.m. Wednesday before a majority of government members rammed the bill through.

Bill 81 could be a harbinger of things to come in 2022, writes columnist Graham Thomson

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks after the UCP annual meeting in Calgary last month. (The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Bill 81, The Election Statutes Amendment Act, has a title designed to put the average Albertan to sleep.

But this is the piece of legislation that sparked a furious debate in the legislative assembly and kept MLAs up sleepless until 3 a.m. Wednesday before a majority of government members rammed the bill through.

The debate was long, raucous and at one time had the deputy Speaker of the assembly telling the government House leader, in so many words, to sit down and shut up.

The altercation over Bill 81 exposed so many of the fault lines running through the political landscape that it was pretty much a microcosm of Alberta politics in 2021.

Not only did it once again pit the NDP Opposition against the UCP government, it also revealed dissent inside the UCP caucus, displayed ongoing divisions within Alberta's conservative movement, and exhibited Premier Jason Kenney's tendency to invoke a top-down dictatorial style of leadership to win the day.

Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA Dave Hanson addresses the legislature Tuesday night as Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried looks on. Hanson, Gotfried and Chestermere-Strathmore MLA Leela Aheer broke with their UCP caucus members by voting against Bill 81. (Legislature Assembly of Alberta )

Bill 81 is a monumental piece of legislation weighing in at almost 170 pages and is so important it should really be called William 81, not a mere Bill.

Even if you dozed off at the mention of The Election Statutes Amendment Act, you should care about Bill 81; about what it could have done, what it will do and, ominously, what it might yet do.

Bill 81 goals

Bill 81 originally set out to accomplish four goals:

1. Set up a fixed election date. Consequently, the next provincial election will take place May 29, 2023. 

2. Close the Alberta Federation of Labour "loophole," as Kenney describes it. The legislation ostensibly casts a wide net to stop any organizations "affiliated" with a political party from setting up a Political Action Committee to run political advertisements. But it's really aimed at preventing union-related organizations, notably the AFL, from using their money and clout to run ads attacking UCP government policies. The AFL is threatening to take legal action against the legislation, saying it is unconstitutional.

3. Bypass existing limits on financial contributions to political parties. The UCP has been falling behind by millions of dollars in fundraising to the NDP the past year. Bill 81 would have allowed well-heeled supporters to give unlimited money to political parties via local nomination contests, thereby bypassing a $4,200-a-year limit on contributions by individual Albertans. The extra money could then flow to party headquarters for use in a general election. However, this facet of the bill garnered so much outrage that the government backed down and amended the bill last Monday to put a cap on nomination-contest contributions to $4,000. That still allows more money into the system but at least puts a cap on it.

4. Buying bulk memberships. The bill allows, in theory, one person to buy hundreds of party memberships in other people's names without those people being notified. This raises the potential for political fraud and that's what sparked this week's tempestuous overnight debate.

"Tonight is an incredible night of anti-democracy and anti-grassroots," declared Independent MLA Drew Barnes who, along with MLA Todd Loewen, was kicked out of the UCP caucus last May after criticizing Kenney.

"The whole heart of this is that we're going from a situation where you cannot buy a membership for someone else to where you can now buy hundreds of memberships for someone else. I believe that's the heart of what the RCMP investigation is from three years ago into this premier and this leadership."

Fractured politics

Barnes was referring to the ongoing RCMP investigation into allegations of wrongdoing in the 2017 UCP leadership race that Kenney won. Kenney has adamantly insisted he did nothing wrong.

That immediately brought government House leader Jason Nixon to his feet who challenged the chair — deputy Speaker Angela Pitt — to explain why she was "letting that rant go on about fake RCMP investigations."

Pitt, who is a UCP MLA, immediately shut Nixon down: "I'm about 44 seconds into listening to this member speak, in which most of that time has been listening to you yell at me from across the aisle."

Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu speaks at a news conference earlier this year. Madu is the sponsor of Bill 81. (CBC News)

It was a remarkable exchange, one for the legislative record books, and revealed more of the fractured nature of Alberta politics, particularly within the government caucus.

Perhaps most troubling for the government is how three members of the UCP caucus spoke against the bill, pointing to the possibility of someone with money in their pocket and wickedness in their heart unfairly influencing nomination contests or leadership votes.

"Right now in my household, between myself, my children, and my husband, I can buy 400 memberships per person, 1,600 memberships within my own family. That doesn't actually take the big money out in any respect," said UCP MLA Leela Aheer.

Aheer, as well as UCP colleagues Richard Gotfried and David Hanson, wanted the government to add a simple amendment stating that anyone receiving a membership in any party must confirm their consent in writing. 

Instead, Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, the bill's sponsor, said the UCP's rules already forbid anyone from buying party memberships for somebody other than a spouse or dependent child.

But as Madu acknowledged himself, the bill does not legally prevent one person buying multiple memberships for other people.

Consequently, there is an ominous cloud hanging over Bill 81 that unnerves MLAs on all sides of the assembly who see the potential for backroom abuse by political parties — and in this case, the party under that cloud is the UCP itself.

This suspicion could taint the upcoming party vote on Kenney's leadership review. A group of 22 UCP constituency association presidents had banded together to demand the party hold the review before March 1 and ensure every party member could cast a ballot — either online or at a local voting station.

Instead, the UCP's board has declared the vote will take place on April 9 at a one-day convention in Red Deer where only those in attendance can vote — thus opening up the prospect of pro-Kenney forces manipulating the vote by stacking the meeting.

Bill 81 is not only a microcosm of Alberta politics in 2021 but perhaps a harbinger of things to come in 2022.