Edmonton

Danielle Smith rejects suggestion that bill giving cabinet sweeping powers was a mistake

"The Sovereignty Act wasn't perfect in its wording. That's why it's being amended," Alberta's premier told reporters Tuesday.

'The Sovereignty Act wasn't perfect in its wording,' Alberta premier concedes

Premier Danielle Smith said Tuesday that changes being made to the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act reflect the normal process of honing and clarifying legislation. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is rejecting suggestions she made a mistake when she introduced a bill that would give her cabinet sweeping powers to rewrite laws outside the legislative process.

Smith says the changes being made to her Sovereignty Act reversing that authority simply reflect the normal process of honing and clarifying legislation.

"The Sovereignty Act wasn't perfect in its wording. That's why it's being amended," Smith told reporters Tuesday. "There are a couple of clarifications that we needed to make.

"I just look at this as part of the process. You introduce bills with three readings for a reason."

Smith has been widely criticized for introducing those unchecked powers in her Sovereignty Act as part of a broader plan to fight what she deems federal intrusion in areas of provincial responsibility.

After accusations last week that the bill gave her cabinet those powers, Smith reversed course on the weekend and said there would be amendments to fix it.

Her comments echoed those made by Justice Minister Tyler Shandro on Monday, when he told reporters: "I'm not going to characterize it as a mistake."

Neither Smith nor Shandro have explained how the powers ended up in the bill if they were not supposed to be there.

Shandro pushed back Monday on reporters, who suggested he and the other members of Smith's United Conservative government didn't understand that the bill contained the sweeping powers provision.

"Of course, the bill was understood," said Shandro.

Asked if he was fine with the way the original bill was worded, Shandro, a lawyer, responded: "I've given legal advice to [cabinet] about what the options are and what the advantages and disadvantages are for the various different decision points."

"I'm one member of [cabinet] that votes on it," he said. "I'm not going to speak specifically about one particular decision point and what my advice was on that. I think that would be breaching cabinet confidentiality."

Opposition wants to see legal advice

The Opposition NDP says Smith either got caught trying to make an end-run power grab or is so incompetent she introduced an authoritarian bill without knowing she was doing it.

On Tuesday, NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir called for cabinet to waive confidentiality for Shandro so he could explain to Albertans what legal advice he delivered.

"If the government wants to have a shred of credibility left, they should release the legal advice they received," Sabir said in a statement.

"All of this uncertainty is harming our reputation and our economic future."

The bill is in second reading. The next stage, committee of the whole, is when the bill is to be debated in greater detail, and that is when amendments are expected.

On Monday, UCP caucus members said they would forward two amendments.

The first change would clarify that any changes cabinet makes to laws under the Sovereignty Act can't be done in secret, but must instead come back to the house for the normal process of debate and approval.

The caucus also voted to propose an amendment to spell out when cabinet can take action.

Under the bill, cabinet has wide latitude to respond to whatever federal law policy or program it deems harmful to Alberta's interests.

With the amendment, harm would be defined as anything a majority of the legislature deems to be an unconstitutional federal intrusion in provincial areas of responsibility.

Caucus whip Brad Rutherford said the changes reflect concerns members heard from constituents.

Smith said she welcomes the amendments.

The bill has been criticized by political scientists and legal experts as constitutionally questionable and a threat to the checks and balances of democracy.

Indigenous leaders have come out against it, saying it tramples on treaty rights. Business groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, warn the legal uncertainty surrounding the bill is not good for investment.

There is also concern that the legislature is usurping the role of the courts by deciding on its own under the bill what is constitutional and what is not.

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