MLA recall legislation coming this spring, Kenney says

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says a recall bill is coming in the next sitting of the legislature.

Any legislation may not take effect until after next election

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks to reporters in Ottawa on May 2, 2019. Kenney announced on Facebook Wednesday that his government would introduce MLA recall legislation this spring. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says a recall bill is coming in the next sitting of the legislature.

Albertans' fury about six MLAs travelling to warm vacation spots during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions had renewed interest in the UCP platform promise to give voters the ability to turf their provincial representative before their term is up.

In a Facebook live video Wednesday evening, Kenney ended speculation that he might delay acting on his promise of recall legislation.

"There will be a recall bill passed this winter-spring session," Kenney said, adding he had pledged to consult first with Albertans and experts on the best design for recall in the province.

A legislative all-party committee worked on the issue of recall legislation during meetings last summer and fall.

In a report released quietly late last year, the committee recommended that Alberta adopt legislation that would allow voters to petition electors to spark a recall election in their riding.

But even if legislation passes soon, observers say it may take years before the option is available. 

The committee recommends an elector should have 90 days to gather petition signatures from at least 40 per cent of voters in a provincial constituency to prompt a recall vote.

If Alberta's chief electoral officer deems the petition a success, voters in that riding could then head to the polls twice — first to decide if the MLA should be unseated, and if that's successful, to elect an MLA in a byelection.

The United Conservative Party promised in both its election campaign and in the most recent throne speech to introduce recall.

The special democratic accountability committee had four months to hear from stakeholders, study other jurisdictions and make recommendations on recall legislation and so-called citizen initiatives, where voters can petition for the government to pass new laws.

Although Kenney and other members of cabinet had previously said a recall bill would come after the legislature reconvenes in February, some critics worried the travel revelations would change that timeline.

Franco Terrazzano, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the MLA's travels while imploring Albertans to stay home exemplifies why the province should have recall legislation to "hold these hypocritical politicians accountable."

The government would make Albertans angrier by abandoning that promise, he said earlier this week.

The lack of legislation thus far was also a disappointment to the councillors for the Town of Slave Lake.

Mayor Tyler Warman said council took the unusual step Tuesday of calling for Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pat Rehn's resignation after waiting in vain for a recall option.

"This government has said they were going to do it for the last year, so some of our frustration has come because we have voiced our concerns to this government, and yet, it's still not here," Warman said in an interview.Slave Lake council said Rehn doesn't spend enough time in the riding and is uninformed about local issues. Rehn refuted these claims.

Recall may not take effect until after next election

Blaise Boehmer, press secretary to Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, said the government is studying the all-party committee's recommendations on recall and citizen votes. He did not respond to questions this week about the timing of any possible legislation, when it could take effect or whether it would apply to municipal politicians or school board trustees, as recommended.

But regardless of when a bill hits the legislative chamber, voters may not have the tool at their disposal any time soon.

Mount Royal University political science Prof. Duane Bratt said it's likely any legislation would take effect until after the next provincial election, which is expected in 2023.

Recall proponent Brent Rathgeber agrees. The past conservative MLA and member of Parliament also testified to the democratic accountability committee this fall.

He said in an interview the current crop of 87 MLAs were elected with the expectation they would keep their posts for a four-year term. It may not be fair to change the rules halfway through the game, he said.

Rathgeber wanted to see petitioners need to gather the signatures of 25 per cent of electors, not 40 per cent, to prompt a vote.

He points to B.C., which has had recall legislation since 1996 and requires signatures from 40 per cent of voters gathered within 60 days. No one has successfully recalled an MLA there to date.

Other ways to get action, critics say

NDP democracy and ethics critic Heather Sweet said recall is an unnecessary measure to bid an early farewell to a misbehaving politician.

She said public pressure has been effective in the past at forcing political parties to oust members from caucus or prompting politicians to resign before their terms were up.

"We are clearly seeing that there is anger in this province by the behaviour by this [UCP] caucus and the decisions that some of these MLAs made, and the lack of leadership the premier has taken in regards to holding them accountable," Sweet said. "And I believe that Albertans will not forget this in 2023."

Heather Sweet, democracy and ethics critic for the Alberta NDP, said recall legislation is unnecessary in Alberta. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

She said the Opposition feels recall and citizen votes are another mechanism by which rich donors can buy influence over public policy.

The democratic accountability committee also recommended that any third-party advertisers running messages during a recall campaign be required to register with Elections Alberta. Members said there should be donation limits to pro- and anti-recall campaigns, and that these should be counted separately from donations to political parties.

No one should be allowed to pay someone, or receive pay, to canvas for recall petition signatures, the committee said.

The committee recommended a blackout period that would disallow any recall campaigns 18 months after the MLA was elected, or six months before a fixed election period.

The special committee will continue meeting this winter to review provincial election and election financing law.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

With files from Audrey Neveu