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Petitions to oust NDP, hold plebiscites, may have little bearing

In the six months since Rachel Notley's NDP government came to power in Alberta, it has implemented several changes that have received very vocal criticism.
PUBLIC BACKLASH – The public backlash to the NDP government is taking the form of petitions calling for a recall of the government and plebiscites on contentious legislation
PUBLIC BACKLASH – The public backlash to the NDP government is taking the form of petitions calling for a recall of the government and plebiscites on contentious legislation

In the six months since Rachel Notley's NDP government came to power in Alberta, it has implemented several changes that have received very vocal criticism.

This has taken the form of public protests and petitions calling for the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the legislature and call an election, or to call plebiscites on the contentious legislation, but it is unclear if any of these petitions will force any action.

Glenn van Dijken, the Wildrose opposition MLA representing Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock, said while he supports the idea of recall legislation being put in place, he doesn't expect the current push for recall or plebiscites will have the desired results.

"I think a lot of those private petitions, they're not understanding the legislation in place," he said. "I don't know the Lieutenant Governor has the ability to enforce anything related to those plebiscites or petitions."

Nonetheless, van Dijken said his party would continue to push for recall legislation at the provincial level, like the private member's bill introduced this fall calling for recall of an MLA based on a petition with signatures from 20 per cent of a riding's constituents.

He said it's a policy approved by the party's membership, and it's one he would support regardless.

"I believe the level was 20 per cent this bill was looking for and what the party platform was saying," he said. "If that has to be adjusted, I think that's something that could be looked at. But from my standpoint, I would agree with it."

According to Eric Adams, an associate professor of constitutional law at the University of Alberta, van Dijken is right about whether any of these petitions will result in action from the Queen's representative in Alberta.

"The Lieutenant Governor is not going to be swayed, in my view, to make any kinds of decisions or actions based on them," he said. "Her constitutional role is to listen to the government that has been democratically elected and holds confidence in the legislature. The premier currently has both of those aspects."

That said, the idea of recall legislation is not new in the Westminster system. B.C. currently has legislation in place that allows for recall of MLAs, requiring signatures from 40 per cent of eligible voters within that MLA's riding.

According to the Elections BC website, of the 26 recall petitions since the Recall and Initiative Act came into force in 1995, there have been 26 recall petitions. None of those were successful, although in one case the MLA in question resigned while the petition was being verified.

Prior to that act coming into force, the only recall legislation on the books was in Alberta in the 1930s under the Social Credit government, requiring signatures of two-thirds of the voters in a constituency. It was enacted in 1936 and repealed the next year.


Recall is not the only issue on which Albertans are now petitioning the government. Calgary resident George Clark has spearheaded an effort that has gained province-wide traction with two petitions calling on the Lieutenant Governor to call plebiscites on Bill 6, the government's controversial farm safety legislation approved this fall, and on the proposed carbon taxation scheme.

"Our petitions are merely saying these issues are contentious enough that we should have our right exercised under Section 128 (of the Alberta Election Act)," he said.

The section of the act states the Lieutenant Governor can order holding a general plebiscite when it appears to him or her that the voters should be consulted on either amending existing legislation or introducing new legislation.

Clark said since he decided to launch the petition earlier this month, he has had 2,000 people volunteer to help collect signatures all around the province.

He noted he waited until there was clear evidence a majority of Albertans don't support the government, citing polls conducted by Mainstreet Research on behalf of Postmedia that suggest 70 per cent of Albertans disagree with the direction of the current government.

"Just because you have a majority of the seats with 38 per cent of the vote, doesn't give you the right to impose legislation on people without asking or without doing proper consultation," he said.

Van Dijken said while he is unsure about how effective these petitions will be, he's happy to see Albertans getting engaged in the political process and making their voices heard, referring to the Magna Carta now on display at the Alberta Legislature. The document, he said, came about as a result of citizens feeling they weren't being heard under the king.

"This is what's happening now with the different things taking place, like the Bill 6 rallies," he said. "It's important that citizens have the ability to have their voices heard, whether it results in any solid action from the government at least they have the opportunity to have their voices heard."

Pointing fingers

St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud defended her government's controversial legislation, saying there's no reason farm workers should not be entitled to the same kinds of rights other Canadians enjoy.

"If, God forbid, somebody should lose their life, their family should be covered and should have an income," she said. "It was time. I think other governments were just unwilling to pay that political price to do the right thing."

She added she understands there are public concerns about Bill 6, but suggested a lot of the backlash has been a result of poor communication about the bill when it was first introduced.

"We could have done a much better job of slowing things down at the beginning, making sure people understood, making sure things were clear," Renaud said.

Since then, however, she said Wildrose MLAs must bear a lot of the responsibility for inciting the kind of public backlash the government has received; the idea that the government is "trying to kill farmers or trying to kill the family farm" first came out of the mouths of Wildrose MLAs in the legislature.

van Dijken dismissed those concerns, saying the mixed messaging coming from the government itself is what resulted in any misunderstandings. It was unclear in the beginning, for example, whether unpaid family members would be subject to WCB coverage, or whether inspectors would be able to conduct investigations on family farms in the event of a serious injury or death.

"To say the Wildrose is at fault for misinformation, I think that's totally unfounded," he said. "The misinformation was coming from the government itself."