EDMONTON — Alberta’s NDP Opposition says a new government bill that calls for broadening the use of referendums is an anti-democratic power grab by Premier Jason Kenney that would allow him to game public opinion while introducing big money back into politics.
Heather Sweet, NDP critic for democracy issues, says Bill 26 would allow Kenney’s cabinet to determine which issues can go to referendum, how the question is worded, and how, where, and when they are to be held, including during provincial elections.
The bill would also allow the government to decide whether the referendums are binding or non-binding.
Bill 26 also proposes to allow third-party advertisers seeking to influence public opinion on a referendum issue to spend up to $500,000. Those advertisers would only have to file audited financial statements if they spend over $350,000.
Currently, third-party advertisers can spend only $150,000 during a provincial election campaign.
“This puts the power solely in the hands of the premier,” Sweet said after the legislation was introduced Tuesday.
“The UCP is deliberately opening up these laws, with sky-high (spending) limits open to abuse in order to allow anyone to start influencing the public without ever having to say where the money goes.
“This isn’t about strengthening democracy. This is about a premier giving himself the power to create a big-money machine that will allow the UCP’s rich friends and donors to write cheques from the shadows.”
Right now, referendums can only be held on matters related to the Constitution.
Bill 26 would allow those votes to be held on any issue the government deems to be in the public interest.
The legislation, along with a bill to amend Senator-in-waiting elections, were introduced in the house by Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer.
Schweitzer was not made available for an interview.
Kenney, in a statement, said “Albertans continue to tell us that they want a greater say in the politics in this province — and that is what we’re doing.
“This legislation will help us strengthen democracy and increase accountability, giving Albertans a louder voice and a direct impact on the actions of government.”
Under the bill, the new referendums could be held on their own, through a mail-in ballot, or in conjunction with provincial or municipal elections.
They could be provincewide or targeted to a specific area.
The legislation follows on the heels of last week’s release of the Fair Deal panel report.
The panel, created by Kenney, surveyed and met with thousands of Albertans late last year and earlier this year to determine ways Alberta may be able to strengthen its hand within Confederation.
The panel urged Kenney to pursue reforms such as an Alberta police force and leaving the Canada Pension Plan.
Kenney, responding to the panel, promised to hold a referendum next year which, if successful, would give him a mandate to pursue reforms with Ottawa on equalization payments.
He also said his government is reviewing whether the province can get a better deal if it pulls out of the Canada Pension Plan and creates an Alberta-only version.
He has promised that before such a plan would be implemented, Albertans would get their say on it in a referendum.
The Fair Deal panel did not present any evidence that most Albertans want a provincial pension plan. In fact, the panel found that almost six in 10 surveyed in a phone poll did not want to exit the CPP.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press