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Alberta Politics

Fair Deal report a response to fringe separatist threat and distraction from UCP job cuts

The final report of the Fair Deal Panel was released yesterday. Here are my quick thoughts on the final report.

A reaction to a threat from the right: The appointment of the Fair Deal Panel was a direct response to a perceived threat to the United Conservative Party from the political right and fringe separatists following the re-election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal government in October 2019.

The panel, which was announced by Premier Jason Kenney at the Manning Networking Conference in Red Deer, was a relief value to give frustrated Conservatives an opportunity to express their anger at the Liberals and a steering wheel to allow the Premier to control the political narrative around Alberta’s political relationship with Ottawa.

Kenney played a major role in the federal Conservative Party’s campaign against the Trudeau Liberals, with the premier even traveling to Ontario and Manitoba to campaign during the election, but despite all the bluster it appeared to have little impact on voters in those provinces on Election Day. The Conservatives did very well in Alberta, earning 69% of the vote, but saw their support decline in almost every riding Kenney campaigned in.

A federal Conservative landslide in Alberta is nothing new, it literally happens every four years. But the latest electoral division reflects an increasing feeling inside Alberta that the rest of Canada does not support the province’s energy industry and a growing feeling outside of Alberta that the province is a laggard on climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

Alienation and anger at Ottawa is omnipresent in Alberta politics, but the separatist threat that spooked Kenney seven months ago has largely evaporated and the crash in the international price of oil and the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of the provinces being able to work with a federal government for financial relief.

Fair Deal Panel meant to distract from the UCPs job cuts agenda: Creating external enemies and manufacturing crises is something that Kenney excels at. The focus on the Fair Deal report and its recommendations are meant to distract Albertans from the UCP’s political agenda closer to home.

Despite claiming to be obsessed with creating jobs, Kenney’s government has done the opposite by cutting tens of thousands of jobs in Alberta’s public service, schools, colleges and universities. A high-profile dispute with Alberta’s doctors, which included an incident where Health Minister Tyler Shandro yelled at a physician at the driveway of his home, has mired the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UCP is also moving forward with plans to close and privatize Alberta’s provincial parks.

And it is expected that the Kenney government could soon introduce anti-union legislation and a $2/hour rollback of the $15/hour general minimum wage, directly targeting many of the low income service workers who have been praised as “heroes” during the pandemic.

Police and pension plans: There is little in the final report that the UCP government wasn’t already prepared to pursue or consider. Kenney has said that the government plans to implement or study 23 of the 25 recommendations in the panel’s final report.

Despite public opinion polls showing Albertans do not support replacing the Canada Pension Plan with an Alberta Pension Plan and replacing the RCMP with an Alberta police service, Kenney’s response to the panel report indicated the government was planning to study the two proposals. Both ideas are expensive and likely within provincial jurisdiction to implement, but the creation of an Alberta Pension Plan contradicts other proposals in the report meant to break down trade barriers and increase labour mobility with other provinces.

Equalization referendum: Kenney has spent much of the past year threatening to hold a referendum to remove the equalization article from the Constitution of Canada, so it was unsurprising to see the panel recommend it as well. The threat originated with frustration around delays with the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the federal government’s purchase of the pipeline did not convince Kenney to abandon the pledge.

In its report, the panel admits that a provincial referendum will not have the power to force the federal government or other provinces to reopen the Constitution or renegotiate the equalization formula.

There is probably no scenario where Alberta, a province that is wealthier than most other Canadian provinces even during an economic downtown, will receive funds from a national equalization program. But the unfairness of equalization is a talking point engrained in mainstream Alberta that is not based in fact and is not going away anytime soon.

The panel suggests holding a referendum on equalization would “morally obligate” the federal government and provinces to negotiate amendments to the Constitution. The same argument has worked unsuccessfully for thirty-years on the issue of Senate reform, which the panel report also recommends the province continue to pursue through provincial Senate Nominee elections.

Hijacking the 2021 Municipal Elections: As I first wrote more than a year ago, it is no coincidence that the proposed referendum and the rebooted Senate Nominee election will take place on the same day as the municipal elections across Alberta, October 18, 2021. The timing of these two votes will be used to increase turnout by conservative voters in the municipal and school board elections in an effort to boost support for candidates aligned with the UCP.

Although they dominate in federal and provincial elections, Conservatives have less success at the municipal level where candidates campaign as individuals and mayors offices, town councils and school boards have been more likely to be populated with Albertans more closely aligned with the NDP or Liberals.

Candidates in Alberta’s previous Senate Nominee elections ran under provincial party banners or as Independents. Changes introduced in the Senate Election Act in 2019 (which the report incorrectly refers to as the Senatorial Selection Act, which expired in 2016), will allow candidates to be marked on as a ballot as affiliated with federal political parties.

Injecting a federal party like the Conservative Party of Canada and its resources into a provincial vote being held during a municipal election will muddy the waters during the municipal election, forcing equalization and federal issues into local campaigns that usually focus on local issues. With the federals Liberals having abandoned their Senate caucus and the New Democratic Party continuing to call for Senate abolition, it is unlikely that the those parties will have any interest in participating in the Senate election, leaving the Conservatives to collect voter data and drive conservative voters to the polls.

Perhaps the best example of how the Fair Deal report is a partisan political document and not a serious effort in public engagement is this map found on page 52 of the report.

The map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.
The map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.

Framed as an East versus West political crisis over satisfaction with Canada, the map excludes British Columbia, where 60% of respondents to the Angus Reid Institute survey in January 2020 said they were satisfied with “the way things are going in Canada.”

The map also wedges Manitoba into the western bloc by listing that province’s dissatisfied number when the survey showed that 54% of Manitobans were satisfied.

So I fixed the map.

An edited version of the map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.
An edited version of the map on page 52 of the Fair Deal Panel final report.

The only two provinces where a majority of survey respondents were unsatisfied are Alberta and Saskatchewan, which also happen to be the only two provinces where a majority of voters supported the Conservative Party of Canada…

Categories
Alberta Politics

Once upon a time Alberta MLAs had meaningful ideas about Senate Reform

The introduction of Bill 13, the Alberta Senate Election Act, this week inspired me to pull out an old copy of the Special Select Committee on Senate Reform report, Strengthening Canada, from March 1985. The committee, chaired by Calgary-Currie MLA Dennis Anderson, published a report that led to the creation of the original Senatorial Selection Act in 1989 and subsequent Senate nominee elections in 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012.

Dennis Andeson

The 1980s were heady times for constitutional debaters and Senate reform advocates in Canada. Dozens of reports from various governments, organizations, and think-tanks studied the idea of reforming Canada’s appointed Upper Chamber.

Unlike today, when the majority of Senators sit as Independents, decades of federal Liberal Party governments had led to the 1980s Senate being overflowing with Liberal partisan appointees.

A motion from Minister of Federal and Intergovernmental Affairs Jim Horsman on November 23, 1983 led to the creation of the committee, which included 7 MLAs from the Progressive Conservative caucus, including Anderson, Calgary-North West MLA Sheila Embury, Highwood MLA Harry Alger, Calgary-Egmont MLA David Carter, Lacombe MLA Ron Moore, Edmonton-Kingsway MLA Carl Paproski, and Innisfail MLA Nigel Pengelly, and Independent former Social Credit MLA Raymond Speaker. The group spent more than a year consulting and studying the issue in Alberta, Canada and abroad.

The motion to create the committee and the 1985 and 1987 motions to hold Senate elections had cross-partisan support – including from the PC, New Democratic Party and Liberals. This is a marked difference from today, where the NDP are advocates of Senate abolition, the Liberals have their banished Senators from their federal caucus, and Conservatives (at least when they are in government) have largely fallen back into supporting the current appointed Senate model.

An advertisement asking for feedback for the committee.

The committee report tabled in the Legislative Assembly in 1985 included a number of recommendations for reforming the Senate that are much more ambitious than anything being presented by Senate election advocates today.

Unlike the unimaginative Senate Election Act, which is a largely farcical exercise, the Special Select Committee on Senate Reform called for wide-ranging constitutional reforms that would reorganize and increase the democratic accountability of the Upper Chamber.

The 1985 report recommended Senators should be elected using a first-past-the-post system and that they should represent constituencies identical to provincial boundaries. Senators would be elected for the life of two provincial legislatures with staggered elections allowing for three to be elected during each provincial election, with each voter being able to vote for three candidates.

The number of Senators would have been dropped to 64 had the committee had its way, with six representing each province and two representing each territory. This would presumably fulfill the “equal” part of the call for a Triple-E Senate (the other Es being effective and elected).

The report also recommended that “the Senate should be organized on a different basis than any other Upper House in the Commonwealth,” including being organized without the recognition of political parties.

The report argued that “if the role of the Senate is to represent the regions (provinces) of the country, it must be structured to represent those regions’ interests rather than the interest of national political parties.” This is somewhat reflective of the current Senate, where the majority of members sit as Independents rather than members of political parties.

The report recommended that traditional opposition and government roles in the Senate be abolished, including the positions of Government Leader and Opposition Leader, and that Senators should physically be seated in provincial delegations regardless of any party allegiances. Each provincial delegation would select a chairman who would should sit at the pleasure of the provincial delegation and participate in a Senate Executive Council, which would, along with the Speaker, determine the order of business of the Senate.

The report also called for the qualifications for candidates to the Senate to be made the same as those for Members of Parliament, removing minimum 30 years old age requirement of and $4,000 property ownership requirement.

It also noted that “the Senate should not be a forum for inter-governmental negotiations.”

Now a quick look at Bill 13, the Senate Election Act

Doug Schweitzer Calgary Alberta Conservative
Doug Schweitzer

The Senate Election Act introduced by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer this week would allow the Senate nominee candidates to be chosen through an election but then, if the Prime Minister decides to appoint the winners, which he is not bound to do, they will be able to serve their time in the Senate until the age of 75 without ever having to face re-election.

The biggest flaw with this bill and Alberta’s previous Senate election laws is that there is no real accountability if these elected Senators never have to face re-election.

Bill 13 is being introduced to replace the Senatorial Selection Act, which expired on December 31, 2016. But the bill is largely an extension of United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney‘s campaign against Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of the October 2019 federal election.

The Act introduced this week would have Senate candidates nominated by provincial political parties or as Independent candidate, but list their federal political party affiliation next to their name on the ballot. This is a significant change from the previous Senate nominee elections when candidates were listed under provincial party banners. It is unclear whether the federal political parties will have any say about the candidates who align with them in a provincially-administered Senate election.

Kenney and Schweitzer announced that the next Senate election will take place during the October 17, 2021 municipal elections, which will also be the date of the promised “equalization referendum.” It has been speculated that these events are scheduled on this date in order to boost conservative voter turnout in the municipal elections and fulfill the Conservative Party’s long-time dream of defeating Naheed Nenshi and electing a capital-C conservative into the mayor’s office in Calgary.