The Alberta Party’s ‘democratic renewal’ policy: a disappointment with the potential for disaster!

The Ministry must enjoy the confidence of the House. Notwithstanding this, Alberta’s Legislature may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the former Governor General – plotting to thwart the will of the Commons?

Nobody wants to be an Alberta Party pooper, but the province’s self-described “new centrist political party” continues to disappoint.

The latest example is the Alberta Party’s policy on democratic renewal, which demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how our system of government works and identifies the party as an advocate of the same dangerous U.S.-style legislative bromides as the Wildrose Alliance.

In the case of the Wildrose crowd, this is no surprise. They are, after all, a shrinking rump of perpetually disaffected people who advocate the Americanization of everything from health care to gun ownership to the rules of the Legislature. Indeed, about the only American ideas the Wildrosers don’t like are the good ones – like that country’s profound commitment to free speech and its constitutionally entrenched separation of church and state.

But coming from the Alberta Party, which has tried pretty hard to brand itself as a moderate Canadian voice firmly in the political centre, this is a major disappointment.

When the Alberta Party announced it was releasing a policy on democratic renewal, many Albertans hoped it would emphasize a call for proportional representation, a change that would truly make Alberta more democratic and which could be implemented without upsetting the Parliamentary applecart. For many of us, proportional representation would have made the Alberta Party hard not to support.

Instead, the two most striking recommendations of the party’s democratic renewal brief released a week ago today are term limits for the premier and fixed election dates, which the Alberta Party says would “bring balance and stability back to the Legislature, civil service and all organizations that work with the government.”

Neither will achieve the goals claimed, and both are almost certainly unconstitutional if implemented in any meaningful way. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine how something we have never had will bring stability back to our Legislature!

Sorry about the need for some theory, but our Parliamentary system depends on the Ministry (that is, the cabinet, which must be made up of members of the Legislature) ruling only with the confidence (that is, the approval) of the Legislature. It is essential to the operation of this system that the government must fall when it loses the confidence of the House.

This was the democratic principle on which Prime Minister Stephen Harper trampled in December 2009, when he persuaded the Governor General to prorogue Parliament without a vote when his Ministry had clearly lost the confidence of the House.

It was very troubling that this did not particularly worry Canadian citizens, and it is suggested here that their lack of concern is reflected in the credibility this foolish proposal apparently has among Alberta Party activists. Whether the party’s supporters recognize it or not, this idea is designed to subvert the ability of Canadian governments to act on the programs voters want and instead to pave the way for a sclerotic and entrenched separation of powers system like that of the United States, where even popular reforms are essentially impossible.

Meaningful fixed election dates would clearly limit and possibly eliminate the power of the House to dismiss the ministry, a democratic setback.

Anyway, the Constitution Act 1982, for which we must thank Pierre Elliott Trudeau, includes a hybrid approach to the idea of fixed election dates that should be good enough for anyone who thinks this is a good idea – to wit, a five-year outside limit on the term of Parliament or any Legislature.

Beyond that, since the Constitution Act 1867 decrees that Canada will have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom,” and since the U.K.’s constitution is unwritten, the kind of proposal made by the Alberta Party would require Canada’s written constitution to be amended to reflect the departure from fundamental British practice. This means it is almost certainly doomed to be nothing more than a gesture, constitutionally meaningless and able to be ignored by any government on a whim.

So why push a bad idea that would make our government less democratic, and which has minimal chance of being implemented anyway? Only the Alberta Party can answer that question.

As for the notion of term limits for the premier or any politician, this idea is profoundly undemocratic and originates decades ago with the desire of right-wingers to force out of office effective centrist politicians whose popular polices they despised.

Really, who is the Alberta Party to tell you, the sovereign voter, whom you are able to vote for?

If you think a politician has been in power too long, there’s a mechanism for dealing with that. You can vote against him. If you think a politician is doing a great job, why should you not be able to continue to support her?

Imposing a term limit on a premier or any other office holder is an assault on democracy that has currency in Alberta only because of the continued hue and cry and bogus arguments of a right-wing minority determined to use anything they can think of to force good people out of power when the voters won’t.

All Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor had to say on the party’s website to explain this position was: “We also heard that people are tired of the politics surrounding elections, therefore we believe there should be fixed election dates and term limits on the Premier.” Say what? Most political parties that talk like this drop this notion faster than you can say “Stephen Harper” once their own guy is in power.

Finally, the Alberta Party’s two other key policies for democratic reform are:

One, the replacement of the Alberta government’s Public Affairs Bureau, the world’s largest incompetent public relations agency, with a “citizens affairs centre” with which, I guess, we can all smoke banana peels and sing koombyah. It’s not so much that this is a bad idea as it’s hopelessly naïve. It’s unlikely to be implemented by any government, including one led by the Alberta Party. That said, trying it would probably do little harm.

And, two, developing budgets “through an open community-based process which asks for input from Albertans before budgets are finalized.”

Well, good luck with this if it’s anything more than a bogus “consultation” of the sort preferred by our current Conservative government before it goes ahead and does whatever it pleases. If the community had meaningful input, the process would be seized by the opposition, which would soon make mincemeat of the government.

There are a couple of better ideas in this document, so I suppose we oughtn’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To wit:

  • A longer legislated cooling off period before former MLAs and officials can become professional lobbyists.
  • Meaningful election funding legislation.

The Alberta Party also calls for increased flexibility in how the Legislature operates, including the use of new technology, so I guess they’d like to let MLAs use their BlackBerries, which would be no big deal.

But they also want to experiment with “electronic voting” – a truly terrible idea that opens the door to outright election theft by hackers, as may already have happened in several formerly democratic jurisdictions.

The Alberta Party’s policy on democratic renewal is a flop that, implemented, would do more harm than good, making Alberta a less democratic place than it is now.

It is a big disappointment that does nothing for the credibility of the Alberta Party, which, at less than 2 per cent in the polls, obviously has work to do in this area!

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

17 Comments on "The Alberta Party’s ‘democratic renewal’ policy: a disappointment with the potential for disaster!"

  1. Dan P. says:

    As I mentioned on Twitter, other provinces already have or are considering "fixed election date" statutes. Like British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Northwest Territories and perhaps Ontario?

    However the provincial statutes still allow premiers to call an early election any time. So I guess we're talking about a toothless statute.

    I would like to see if the fixed election date laws have any "impacts" on the elections in British Columbia.

  2. CuJoYYC says:

    Should be: "The Alberta Party’s policy on democratic renewal is a flop that, IF implemented, would do more harm than good, making Alberta a less democratic place than it is now."

  3. Carlos Beca says:

    Yes David I also was very disappointed with the Alberta Party policy but you have to remember that they developed this policy based on the Big Listen process that is undoubtedly democratic. I actually participated in one about this issue and I was astounded to realize that Albertans, not the Alberta Party do not really think proportional representation is crucial to move forward in this province. This is the reason I said in previous messages that I do not hold a lot of optimism in democratic renewal especially in Alberta. It is not only the parties that do not talk about it, is most people in Alberta. That has discouraged me tremendously of seeing any change soon. We are locked in the well known battered wife syndrome. The more they get us the more we vote for them. I feel terrible that I cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel for our province and that I fear that we may very well find ourselves in a situation where we will not be able to be what we can be only because the political process does not allow it. This of course happens around the world in many countries but it is hard when we have everything in this province to be great except the will. Remember the Switzerland of South America (Uruguay) – remember the 60s Argentina and Brazil economic miracles, remember Japan taking over the world economy, and others. Their systems failed in all cases politically. Some from foreign interferences, other internal dissent, but they failed finding their way. I think Alberta is exactly another example. The absolute failure of our Heritage Trust Fund and the lack of good governance in this province to me is 100% political.

  4. Phoenix says:

    I'm not sure if anyone has done the math on this but I understand they are looking at 10 year term limits for Premiers coupled with fixed election dates of very 4 years. Now I'm not great at math but as far as I can tell 4+4=8 & 4+4+4=12. Further neither 8 or 12 is 10. Which means that you will end up in a situation whereby a Premier will be stepping down in the middle of a term and the new Premier will be unable to call an election and get a mandate from the people for 2 years.

    Ooops.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Dave: I like your material, but I have to disagree with the Wildrose being too American. You can't say on one hand that we support "Americanization" of the Legislature (I'm assuming you mean through actual FREE votes), and then on the other state the WR opposes free speech? The WR opposes free speech? Really? Also, I know of no WRP policy, written or otherwise, that would end separation of church and state..that's absolutely incorrect.

    And if by "Americanization" of Health Care you refer to HRC capability to provide hip/knee replacements for 30% less than the public sector, then yes, I'm all for Americanization. If you refer to shutting people out because of no insurance, well now you're just scare-mongering because you and I know that won't happen.
    And don't even get me started on gun ownership….the cities in the states with the most strictest gun laws (all the heavily democratic cities by the way: ie: DC, Detroit, Chicago etc) all have vastly higher gun murder and violence in comparison to those states that have right to carry laws. Do you really think criminal care about gun laws? They'll carry regardless, but are a little slower to use knowing that

  6. Carlos Beca says:

    David in my message I forgot to mention that I fully agree with you on the term limits. I find this policy so damn silly that it is not even worth discussing. Imagine someone walking into an office of any professional and say 'I am sorry you have been at this for 10 years so time to be something else'. This is to me absurd. People that go into politics because they want to work for the good of their country or province or whatever are going to have limits! This tells me the state of our democracy. We think that politicians are always a bunch of crooks and so we have to limit their corruption. Well if that is the case then put them in jail when they do something against the law just everyone else. Anonymous, yes the Wildrose is too American and is a Tea party in disguise. They seem to believe in public service to get elected but to then reduce taxes so that nothing can work. Maybe you are right that the cities with the strictest gun laws have more crime compared to the rest of the United States but what you did not say is that the US being the only country in the West with free access to guns has on average 10 times more crime than anybody else. Yes 10 times. Of course the NRA says that has nothing to do with the weapons, but with the people that use them – well doughhhhh

  7. jerrymacgp says:

    "Fixed election dates" are a scam. We already have them, in the sense that legislatures have an upper limit of how long they can exist before another election must be held (in Canada it is normally five years); "fixed election date" laws simply shorten that time limit to four years, or sooner if the Government is defeated on a matter of confidence. We have also seen how the Harper government was able to circumvent its own "fixed election date" law by asking the GG for dissolution.

    Aside from proportional representation, the most significant democratic reform we could implement would be to reduce the power of the governing party leader and the caucus whip and increase the independence of back-bench MPs and MLAs. I think that paradoxically, the recent trend towards more open elections for party leaders has hurt, rather than helped, the situation. The support of the caucus is no longer a major factor in the ability of the party leader to lead effectively; look at the recent BC Liberal Party leadership, for example, where the new Premier was supported by only one sitting Liberal MLA but won nevertheless. Back-benchers have to kowtow to the leader to curry favour, such as Cabinet posts, Parliamentary Secretaryships, and Committee chair positions, but the leader can do whatever s/he likes to caucus; if caucus support were more crucial to a leader's position, s/he would have to allow them more power and influence (remember how Margaret Thatcher was toppled form her position as Prime Minister by her own Conservative Party caucus, in favour of John Major).

  8. workeradvocate says:

    the Alberta party (all those disgruntled salmon dippers, bluelibs and red torys) is a 'flash in the pan'. They will have successfully splintered the progressive voter of the political spectrum and will significantly be responsible for the re-election of the PC government but with a Reform Alliance opposition.

  9. Ronmac says:

    Maybe the Alberta party should merge with the Liberal party -the Alberta Liberal Party!

  10. Liam says:

    I think Term Limits and fixed election dates are a sound idea. many nations already have them and implement them successfully and those two things i could say are some of the only if not THE ONLY good things american politics has to offer. With term limits governments and leaders are less corrupted by power i would even suggest a term limit to one term of 5 or 6 years that way no one person stays in too long. But actually you
    are incorrect as it was the DEMOCRATS in the US that implemented term limits to two terms so it was actually FDR who in a super massive majority in the house and senate wanted to appear as a president that wasn't power hungry and corrupt as i'm sure many of his party officials seemed to
    be. now i'm not saying it's an instant fix to corruption but it will curtail it, so in fact it was hope full left wing socialists that came up with it not the other way around. And also you are either living under a rock or don't know Alberta very well but we've been electing right of center governments since 1935 with popular votes often of 60% plus all the little right wing parties like the wildrose party, the heritage party, C.O.R , the separation party, and even the Social Credit (who've recently proclaimed themselves to be neither left nor right like the Alberta and Green parties) so you could work out just by knowing those statistics that at least 60% of Albertan's are center-right to extreme-right in their thinking.

    Now on to Fixed election dates i have to agree with this too it may be unconstitutional BUT it allows smaller and opposition parties the knowledge of when the next election will be, so that way the government can't call an election when their opponents are financially weak or do not have a permanent leader or take advantage of polls that might at the time be trending in the governments favor. so small parties like the Alberta party have time to gather forces and amass a electoral war chest over the four or five years provided. But in the case of a backbench revolt or a minority losing confidence in the house elections would still be called or plan B to have the LT. Governor select the opposition party or really any party that is sufficiently in good relations with all MLA's to command confidence in the house and form government until a vote of no confidence or the fixed election.

    As an Alberta party member i like the plan however i don't think it goes far enough, i Agree PR or STV should be proposed or at least deliberated within the party or maybe proposing a referendum on such a system in which an Alberta party government wouldn't campaign for a side and let the voters decide for themselves whether to have a preferential system (STV or AV or AV+). so in closing i'd like to say increasing direct democracy isn't undemocratic or dictatorial in fact it gives people more choice it's not necessarily more or less democratic it's just a different way of doing things, which after all is what the Alberta Party is all about

  11. Carlos Beca says:

    Liam when a corrupt accountant, engineer or doctor is caught we put them in jail. Why would it be any different to corrupt politicians? Limiting their choices of running again is to me not only not acceptable but I think unconstitutional. I can garanteee you that a person with money could challenge that in the Supreme Court of Canada. I cannot understand how it is possible to limit anyone's careers no matter what profession.
    Also the Alberta Party is making a big mistake with their democratic renewal policy. It is very weak indeed. Again it was put together based on members opinions but that is going to prove to be a great weakness for the party. Democratic renewal is on the minds of many voters. It does not surprise me though because right off the bat, the idea was that we should not touch the electoral reform until we have more important democratic issues resolved like full participation. I just happen to believe that the main reason for low interest is exactly because the current system does not make any difference when the concentration of voters of one party rule and so people just cannot bother.

  12. Liam says:

    @ Carlos Beca

    i agree and anyone that breaks the law should get the same treatment politicians, lawyers, accountants, dentists, fast food managers and perhaps who you once though was just a friendly neighborhood man but turned out to be a pedophile. in that case Alberta should adopt civil law rather then common law. also with the money why not vote themselves a pay cut. the truth is however politics isn't a career well at least it shouldn't be it's service to the community who employ them.
    in theory the idea of term limits sounds good on paper but yes you are right it's unconstitutional but it depends on how t is dealt with, if you just said the leader of this party only gets 2 terms unless there is 95% of members that want him/her to have a third term. but if it was a law that limited all premiers no matter what party it wouldn't really work because the Lt. Governor chooses the PM and the incumbent may stay on even if defeated in a previous election if the Lt. Governor chooses or if the winning party had no leader in fact it's a constitutional law that the incumbent stays on unless clearly defeated. so yes that needs a bit of working on to be implemented with our form of government (constitutional monarchy) where the queen or her representative chooses the leader of the jurisdiction. it isn't democratic YOU don't vote for the premier the Lt. Gov. does. but it could be worked out if there were a new constitutional package like Meech.

    You also must rememeber as a party we are based upon listening and we come from diverse backrounds most never having been part of a political party before. there are ND's lib's PC's Wild-roses greens and social creditors, and that the document is living and WILL be changed as the party grows and the big listen moves to more people. we are broad based and moderate with even at times radical centrists. Also you cannot base your opinion of a party on one single issue. so what i happen to disagree with some elements but that doesn't mean i can't support them but because we are a new party it DOES mean my voice will be heard.

  13. Carlos Beca says:

    Liam that sounds better although I have to disagree that politics in not a career. Here in Canada we consider it a temporary paid hobby but you just have to go to Europe and experience the way their societies work and you will notice a marked difference. People are groomed within parties and they stay as long as they wish just in any other profession. Party life is permanent and not just during elections.
    As far as the Alberta Party and the democratic renewal policies I agree that it is always evolving through the listen process and of course it is just one of their policies except that it was defined from the beginning, at least the one I participated in that electoral reform was not a concern for now and that we should concentrate on the participation issue. I am not trying to criticize this choice and much less mean that was deliberately decided but it is in my view a very poor way of looking at the problem. Having experienced both the Past-the-post and the proportional systems I have no doubts whatsoever that despite any possible disavantages, the proportional system allows for a much healthier renewal of the system by allowing younger parties to get into the Legislatures and influence them. In Germany for example the Green Party got in parliament in the late 80s, forced the economic issues to take more in consideration environmental concerns and today Germany is in the forefront of energy production using renewable resources. In our country, despite the fact that the Green party has 10% of the vote gets 1 seat. We all know where we seat in environmental protection. The current government does not even recognize the importance of any serious policies.

  14. Liam says:

    Carlos, I agree proportional representation is much fairer But our party has to put forward more research into it and also must formulate what type of proportional representation and if the system the party chooses is even proportional. As a centrist party i do not see them putting up a policy that supports full blown PR rather the watered down versions of it with MMP (mixed member proportional) or STV (single transferable vote, which in fact used to be the way Alberta elected its government until the sixties), Block vote, , AV and AV+ All of these systems are in use somewhere in the world for example AV in in use in Australia and new Zeland MMP in Germany AV+ in Wales and N.I . STV in used in Ireland, Australian State elections, Indian upper house elections and in the state of Massachusetts electoral votes are handed out proportionally to a candidate depending on how many vote they got in the state. so there are a number of different areas that use some form of PR we must remember that they might not work to represent Alberta's smaller population. but i think preferential STV would be easiest to implement in Alberta.

    Oh and just because in europe people stay in power for ages doesn't mean it is better or more democratic again just a diffrent way of doing things, Politics in Canada is and should remain and perhaps become even more so of a service to THE PEOPLE rather than a service to the big financiers and the political class, this was shown in the failure of meech lake and the Charlottetown accords in both THE PEOPLE decided NO to asymmetrical federalism and yes to national UNITY. because nearly ALL of the career politicians of this nation supported it but the ones that worked for the people rather then for themselves opposed it like the one term BC premier David Barrett he realized that he was a servant to the people because THEY employed them. Canada's political class even today has too much of a sense of entitlement that they are all high and mighty which is not the case.

    So just because Norway has had the same party in power for 60 + years doesn't mean THAT is the reason why their people are so well off. If you let people stay in politics for a long time in Canada you get the old social credit or the current Alberta PC's

  15. Carlos Beca says:

    Liam
    One of the problems with blog discussions is that without the body language and the short explanations that occur in a person to person conversation, things get lost in translation.
    I am not at all concerned with what type of PR is used or the technical details. I am sure that with some research and interested people one can find which system is the best for Alberta. What we were discussing is the fact that The Alberta Party does not think a change of the present system is important to the future of the province and better and fairer representation. This is where the discussion started and that is where I have my concerns. The Alberta Party has the big listen policy which I totally agree and so it should have incorporated this discussion into it. Alberta has a lot of people from many parts of the World that can easily create a very rich and creative process to move forward. What I found though is that electoral reform is not a primary concern with the party. Participation is. What I argue is that participation in a political system is directly related to the electoral system. With the system we currently have participation will NEVER be much higher than it is right now simply because it is like voting for nothing. Changes in Alberta distribution of seats is extremelly difficult to change because Conservatives are fairly distributed throughout the province and the progressives are splitting the vote. This creates the stagnation we have now and the idea that we do have a conservative majority when we do not. PR is way fairer and in my opinion should be one of the first discussions for any party that wants to govern this province with some degree of fairness.

    Again on the second topic, I did not say that staying longer means better government. The point of the discussion is limiting terms. I do not agree with those because how long one stays in any profession is a choice and has nothing to do with whether one is serving the public or a company or a charity. This is to me a fundamental right of any person. Limiting it to me is anti-democratic and unconstitutional. That was my point. Also I have lived in Europe and people stay in politics for as long as they want and that does not make them serve more or less interests than here in Canada. I personally think that North American politicians are way more connected with lobbyists and private interests than in Europe. Here in Canada it is almost expected that premiers and ministers get great rewards in the private sector after they serve in the public service. I for one find that very questionable as a lot of them serve private interests while in public service to get those benefits in the future.

    As far as the Norway example you mentioned, I have to remind you that the same party has been in power for that long but only because it is a choice. If you look at the percentages they are proportional and so to me it means the population want them there. In Alberta the case is quite different. Many of us do not feel represented at all. If the PCs had been in power because they clearly have the proportional vote I would not care. What is a choice is a choice. The fact is that they have had majorities without having the majority vote at all. The Federal Government is just another example. They have 39% of the total vote and a clear majoprity. The Green Party for example has 1 seat with 7% of the vote while the Bloc Quebecois in the last parliament had a little over 8% and had something like 50 seats!! This is the root cause of our problem. Really the question is why vote? The chances of your vote contibuting for representation are minimal.

    Thank you for your insights.

  16. Anonymous says:

    carlos. over 50% of the Alberta population consistently votes PC you logic is flawed. and the greens this election got 3% and 1 seat. in Germany they wouldn't have qualified for top up votes and would have no seats, and the bloc got 5% which means they SHOULD have 1to 15 not 4. so in the days of the bloc getting 52 seats they got 14 to 15% of the vote which infact is close to proportionality. but yes it's unfair that the majority of Canadians didn't vote conservative i agree.

  17. Carlos Beca says:

    Anonymous – What I said is flawed because first of all I did not explain very well and you took it out of context. Alberta has a total of 83 seats. In the last election the PCs had 52.7% of the vote and got 72 seats when in a PR they would have gotten 43. The liberal had 26.4% and got 9 seats when they should have gotten 21. The NDP got 8.5% and got 4 seats when they should have gotten 7 and the Wildrose had 6.8% and got 1 seat and they should have gotten 5. Obviously there would have been some interesting discussions rather than just stories like Duckett' s cookie crap. So to complete this, my point is not flawed. Politics in Alberta are stale because of the electoral vote which does not allow a true representation of the population.

    Now as far as the Bloc Quebecois I was referring to the 2008 election where they got 9.98% or 10% of the vote and got 49 seats. They should have gotten 30. On the other hand the Greens in that election got 6.78 or 7% of the vote and got no seats and they should have gotten 21!!
    I could give way more examples. Is this flawed. I believe that you like many other Canadians that have never experienced PR cannot understand the difference this makes. Can you imagine 21 Greens in parliament for example. Do you think that Harper would be ignoring the environment like he is? especially considering that in that same election he got 38% of the vote and 143 seats when he should have gotten 117. You have to imagine the difference of power balance as well as control and strategy. So when you say that the Bloc Quebecois was getting almost proportional you are not looking at it right. It is true that the greens with 3.6 % would not get in parliament but you do not know what the percentage would have actually been if the system was PR because a lot of people did not vote green because they realized their votes did not count at all.

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