OPINION | Kenney not slowing whirlwind pace of major legislative changes

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's government seems determined to reshape Alberta through by using introducing a flurry of legislation.

There is an element of retribution, even revenge, to the reforms being enacted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's government has been busy during the first half of 2020, introducing 33 bills intended to change everything from anti-oil protests to the way referendums are held in the province. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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Since being elected last year, the government of Premier Jason Kenney has introduced legislation to undermine the power of labour unions, remove environmental protection on sand-extraction pits, and set up a Crown corporation to attract investment to Alberta.

Come to think of it, that was just Tuesday this week.

The government has also introduced legislation to permit more private delivery of health care, change how doctors can be paid, and arguably allow Kenney to appoint his friends and supporters to health oversight committees.

Oh, that was just Monday this week.

Alberta's United Conservative government has been busy the first half of 2020.

While you were busy worrying about your job and wiping the groceries clean of COVID-19, the government introduced 33 bills that will, among other things, crack down on anti-oil protests, remove political approval of oilsands schemes, and open the door to regular referendums on any issue Kenney deems suitable.

Last year was almost as busy. The government brought in 29 pieces of legislation that, among other things, scrapped the provincial carbon tax, lowered corporate taxes, overturned the NDP's farm safety law and allowed the government to hire replacement workers in the event of a public-sector strike.

Kenney's government is nothing if not determined. And Kenney seems determined to reshape Alberta through legislation.

Kenney promised he would move quickly

Not that this should come as a surprise. Many of the changes were contained in Kenney's election platform. 

The speed of change shouldn't be a shock, either.

In October 2018, Kenney telegraphed his intentions during an appearance before a Calgary Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

"We think it will be important to hit the ground running should Albertans give us a mandate," said Kenney, paraphrasing former New Zealand finance minister, Roger Douglas, who controversially overhauled his country's public sector via job cuts in the 1980s. "You move quickly. You move with speed because speed creates its own momentum. It also makes it harder for the opponents of reform to obstruct it."

It also makes it harder for the public to understand what's going on.

The Kenney government is moving with the speed and target-fixation of a cruise missile. The outnumbered NDP opposition is, politically speaking, armed with slingshots. The ever-shrinking news media is scrambling to keep up.

Adding more confusion to the chaos is COVID-19.

Albertans are understandably more concerned about their jobs in a pandemic-ravaged economy than they are about the implication of Bill 22: the Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act.

Long-term implications not clear

Bill 22, mind you, is huge. More than 170 pages long, it changes 14 pieces of legislation in six different ministries. It will, among other things, allow oilsands projects to go ahead without cabinet approval, scrap Energy Efficiency Alberta, and allow all Canadians — not just Albertans — to purchase public land.

We don't know the long-term implications of Bill 22, just as we don't know the long-term implications of other "omnibus" bills including this week's Health Statutes Amendment Act.

It opens the way to more private delivery of publicly funded health care. The government says this will free up space in hospitals and shorten waiting lists. Critics, including more than a few physicians, warn this will take resources out of the public system and perversely lengthen wait times.

The Alberta Medical Association likes one aspect of the bill: doctors being able to enter into a contract with the government to take a salary rather than continue with fee-for-service billing. However, because the Kenney government unilaterally tore up its master agreement with the AMA early this year, the medical association says it doesn't trust the government to honour any contracts it signs with individual doctors.

Critics of the government are outraged at the speed and size of Kenney's changes. But some of it is in the eye of the beholder.

Conservatives were just as angry when Rachel Notley became Alberta's first NDP government and promptly began governing like, well, an NDP premier. In 2016, she introduced 37 pieces of legislation including bills to diversify the economy, limit oilsands emissions, and stop predatory lending. Critics accused her of fast-tracking pro-union, pro-environmental changes because she realized she'd lose the 2019 election.

Notley saw herself as a reform-minded premier.

So does Kenney.

But there is a difference. There is an element of retribution, even revenge, to Kenney's reforms.

He has taken great pains to overturn or negate NDP legislation. He scrapped Alberta's carbon tax on consumers, weakened environmental oversight, picked a fight with doctors, brought "balance" to the workplace by undermining unions, and is pushing an agenda that includes more private health care.

NDP outraged by changes

The list of changes invoked by Kenney outrages the NDP. But it's a list that no doubt warms the hearts of UCP supporters.

The list, though, doesn't always tell the whole story. You sometimes have to connect the dots on different pieces of legislation to get a clearer picture of what's going on. Kenney's Bill 1 cracks down on protests that block roads, pipelines or rail lines. Bill 32 cracks down on where unions can picket during strikes or lockouts. Combining the two could theoretically see some union pickets facing massive fines.

Bill 1 is already being challenged in the courts by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

The AMA is suing the government over its torn-up master agreement.

Kenney, though, doesn't seem to mind. He is determined to push ahead with an agenda that is pro-business, anti-union, pro-development, anti-environment, and overtly partisan.

Kenney hit the ground running a year ago, and although the pandemic knocked him off stride, he hasn't slowed down. Most politicians treat a four-year mandate as a marathon. For Kenney, it continues to be a sprint.


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