Proposed law could see Alberta voters petition governments for changes

A new bill would give Alberta voters the chance to petition the provincial government to change laws and policies and prompt a constitutional referendum.

Proponent would need 10 per cent of voters to sign petition within 90 days

Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu has introduced a bill that would allow petitions to push the government to consider new or amended laws. (CBC)

A new bill would give Alberta voters the chance to petition the provincial government to change laws and policies.

The Citizen Initiative Act, introduced in the legislature Tuesday by Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, would also give Alberta voters an avenue to press the government to hold a provincial referendum on the Constitution.

Calling it one of the most important democratic reforms in the province's history, Premier Jason Kenney said the law, if passed, would give citizens more influence into the democratic process.

"It is all and simply about empowering ordinary people to raise and force the consideration of big issues if those of us in elected positions are not listening to them," Kenney said Tuesday.

Madu said the bill is an "on-ramp to the legislative process" for anyone with a fresh, worthy idea.

The bill comes one day after the UCP government tabled legislation to introduce recall legislation to Alberta for MLAs, school trustees and municipal councillors.

Should the Citizen Initiative Act pass, prodding the government to create a new law or amend an existing one, or make a provincial policy change, would require a voter to gather written signatures within 90 days from 10 per cent of the province's electors — about 280,000 people.

If the bill passes, voters who want to push for a constitutional referendum would need to collect signatures from 20 per cent of Alberta voters — about 560,000 people — also within 90 days. That level of support would also have to come from two-thirds of Alberta's provincial constituencies.

If approved as written, the Citizen Initiative Act would be similar to a process adopted in British Columbia in 1995, but allow for more types of petitions.

Three ways to petition government

Last fall, presenters told an all-party legislative committee they wanted the ability to press for action on subjects within and outside of provincial jurisdiction.

Under the proposed process, if Alberta's chief electoral officer declares a petition on a provincial issue to be successful, a legislative committee would be required to consider the issue.

If that committee opts not to introduce legislation, the issue would bounce back to the chief electoral officer, and require the province to hold a plebiscite on the issue. 

Even if the majority of voters want a law change, the result would not be binding on the government.

Policy petitions rejected by a legislative committee would be referred to cabinet, which would decide whether to put that question to a provincial referendum — and what the question should be, and whether the result would be binding.

Kenney said this government gatekeeping is a feature of the Westminster parliamentary system the government must work within. For example, if citizens petitioned for the government to spend millions of dollars on a program, the lieutenant governor would have to approve that recommendation.

Premier Jason Kenney says Citizens Initiative Act empowers people

10 months ago
Duration 2:14
Similar legislation has been used for more than a century in democracies around the world, says Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. “Sometimes politicians ... fail to listen to the fundamental wishes of the people.” 2:14

Successful constitutional petitions would require the province to hold a binding referendum.

The legislation would also govern how much people could donate to any campaigns on citizen initiatives, and who could volunteer to gather signatures.

The proposed law would also prevent any petitions that seek to violate or erode citizens' human rights.

Kenney said he couldn't predict what kind of petitions citizens will submit, should the law pass. He would have used the mechanism to eliminate the former NDP government's carbon tax, were he in Opposition at the time, he said.

High bar to cross

Spencer McKay, a post doctoral fellow at New York University and political scientist who studies referendum design, said Alberta's proposal appears well designed to resist manipulation by rich political actors. Requiring canvassers be unpaid volunteers is an important feature, he said.

The proposed process for a citizen to submit a piece of legislation they drafted appears to give applicants good control over the nuances of a proposal, he said.

However, the number of signatures required to trigger government action are much higher than in places like California and Switzerland, which see numerous citizen-led initiatives, he said. It likely means attempts in Alberta will be infrequent, he said.

There are motivations for governments to introduce these initiatives that go beyond giving voters more direct access to democracy, he said.

"They might give them a way of defusing some political disagreements within the party or within their group of political supporters. It might give them a way of shoring up their populist credentials in the face of being a government that is currently holding power," he said. "And they can do both those things while knowing it probably isn't going to cost them."

University of Alberta law Prof. Eric Adams said with a referendum result in hand, there are limits on Alberta's power to change constitutional clauses without the agreement of other provinces and the federal government.

The high thresholds make it unlikely citizens initiatives will transform Alberta politics, he said.

Those most likely to take advantage of the mechanisms will be well-funded and organized.

"It's not really designed for the little person who has a great idea," Adams said. "It's for politically active and mobilized individuals who can access both the resources and the infrastructure to pull off what is really, basically, an impossible task for a person going door to door."

Since 1995, when B.C.'s law took effect, there have been 12 citizen petitions to change legislation. Just one petition was successful, which prompted a binding referendum that forced that government to scrap its harmonized sales tax in 2011.


Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca


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