The fall sitting of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly begins on October 23 and indications suggest that it will be a different than recent sittings. Aside from the brief sitting held in the spring with the almost sole purpose of ejecting retired MLA Ken Kowalski from his long-held spot in Speaker’s Chair, the newly elected Wildrose Official Opposition has had little opportunity to spar with government ministers in a formal setting.
The Wildrose Party’s gains in the April 23, 2012 election marked the first time since before the 1975 election that Alberta’s official opposition composed of mostly MLAs representing rural Alberta constituencies. Between 1986 and 2008, most opposition MLAs were elected to represent constituencies within Edmonton city limits. Due to floor crossings and a by-election, more opposition MLAs resided in Calgary between the 2008 and 2012 elections.
This scenario is new for the Progressive Conservatives, who spent 37 years dominating rural Alberta and is certainly new for the 17 MLA Wildrose opposition, which includes 15 rookie MLAs. While leader Danielle Smith has received some criticism for her three-week absence to the United States, she and MLAs Rob Anderson, Kerry Towle, Ian Donovan, and Shayne Saskiw have been some of the more prominent Wildrose media spokesmen over the course of the summer.
Over the course of the summer, Premier Alison Redford‘s PCs stumbled over issues in rural Alberta which in previous years would have been solved in a closed-door Tory caucus meeting. The closure of the fully-functional Little Bow Continuing Care Centre in Carmangay made the Tories look vengeful towards voters who abandoned their party and the cancellation of funding for the Fort Macleod police training centre made the Tories look foolish for ever approving the porkbarrel project in the first place.
The confusion around what exactly happened at the XL Foods meat packing plant in Brooks, the slow reaction of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to the E.coli outbreak, and the late reaction of the slaughterhouse owners will certainly be an issue the opposition will use to tackle the government during the fall sitting. Criticisms of cabinet minster international travel and expense claims will undoubtably be met by the Tories retort that Wildrose caucus has yet to release expense claims they committed to release over the summer.
Due to a lack of traditional organized conservative political opposition outside the PC Party, it has been an odd and sometimes humorous sight to watch rookie Wildrose MLA’s stand side-by-side with New Democratic Party MLAs at protest rallies over the course of the summer. While some of Wildrose MLAs first appeared awkward and uncomfortable gripping a megaphone, some of them looked like they were getting the hang of it by summer’s end. In the past, the Liberal and NDP opposition have leaned on groups like the Friends of Medicare and Public Interest Alberta to rally supporters outside the Assembly, but the main conservative voices, like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, have tended to rely on press conferences and media releases rather than rallies on the steps of the Legislature Building.
The legislative agenda presented by the government during this fall sitting will also give Premier Redford an opportunity to shape her defining narrative, which has been absent since she was elected Premier earlier this year. The government will return to its only bill introduced in the short spring sitting, the Workers’ Compensation Amendment Act, to provide additional support to police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and peace officers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths is expected to introduce amendments to the Local Authorities Elections Act, which would extend terms for municipal elected officials from three years to four years. Eduction Minister Jeff Johnson could introduce an Education Act, which would mark the third time the Tories have attempted to introduce a consolidated piece of education legislation in the past few years.
Finance Minister Doug Horner will face criticism over Auditor General Merwan Saher‘s investigation into whether the government violated the Government Accountability Act by releasing shortened versions of financials documents during the 1st quarter update of the provincial budget this summer. Minister Horner was criticized by journalists and lobbyists for not releasing more detailed documents.
The decision to not release detailed documents could signal a desire for the government to shift away from the public quarterly budget updates, which are meaningless in terms of fiscal planning due to the province’s dependence on fluctuating natural resource commodity prices and have become little more than public relations exercises for the government over the past two decades.
While his party has not had much to celebrate over the past year, Liberal leader Raj Sherman earned a small victory this week. Health Minister Fred Horne announced that the anti-smoking bill introduced by Dr. Sherman and passed before the last election will be proclaimed into law by the Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell. Dr. Sherman’s bill would ban adults from smoking in vehicles where children under the age of 18 are present.