The best thing about booting the PCs out of office is the refreshing change the NDP have brought to the Legislature. And if the first week of the 29th Legislative session is any indication, we can expect the next four years to be thought provoking, entertaining and bizarre.
Unlike the Prentice PCs whose first order of business was much ado about nothing—Mr Prentice introduced a bill repealing an unproclaimed statute—the NDP started with Bill 1, an act prohibiting corporations and unions from making political contributions to candidates, constituency associations and political parties.
After some skirmishing over whose bright idea this was—both the Wildrose and the NDP claim it as their own—and notwithstanding the PC’s initial position that Bill 1 does a disservice to corporations by tipping the playing field in favour of individual voters (yeah, I know, its nuts), all the Opposition parties supported the Bill.
They did, however, raise some legitimate concerns. Would its retroactive application survive a court challenge? Should corporations and unions be allowed to repay political loans and backstop guarantees? What about third-party advertising, “in kind” donations and government announcements during an election period?
Justice Minister Ganley assured the Opposition she had legal opinions supporting the Bill’s retroactive application. She walked them through the loans/guarantees sections (they become illegal contributions if they’re not repaid quickly) and assured the Opposition that their remaining concerns would be addressed by a special committee struck to review ethics, transparency, conflicts of interest and whistle-blower legislation.
It was a good start.
With the introduction of Bill 2, An Act to Restore Fairness to Public Revenues, the NDP put paid to the speculation that it might back away from its promise to kill the flat tax.
Bill 2 raises corporate taxes to 12% and introduces graduated taxes on personal incomes over $125,000.
Finance Minister Joe Ceci assured the Opposition that all-in Alberta still has the lowest tax regime in Canada because it has no sales tax, no healthcare premiums, no payroll tax and the lowest fuel tax in the country.
Nevertheless the Opposition is worried that even with these new taxes, the government will not be able to raise enough revenue to pay for the services it promised to Albertans. This is a legitimate concern which will not be resolved until the government unveils its budget in October.
Which brings us to another bone of contention.
Under normal circumstances the government would have introduced the budget in the spring. However since Jim Prentice arrived on the scene, government in Alberta has been anything but “normal”.
Mr Jean suggests Ms Notley should hunker down and unveil the budget in September but Ms Notley will not be pushed. “We’re going to do it in a considered, detailed fashion. We don’t want to introduce Prentice 2.0. We want to introduce NDP 1.0 because that’s what the people of this province just voted for, and that’s what we owe to them.”*
In the meantime, the government requires an interim supply bill (Bill 3) to tide it over until the new budget takes effect.
The Opposition is critical of Bill 3, arguing it lacks detail and they do not have sufficient time to scrutinize it properly.
But as Mr Mason pointed out to Mr McIver, the interim PC leader and leader of the third party (oh, let’s just say that again, the third party), the NDP government’s predicament is actually Mr McIver’s party’s fault.
The Prentice PCs presented their budget in March then called a snap election before it could be debated. They approved an interim supply bill that allowed the government to tick over until June 30 with the expectation that they would sweep back into power and ram through their budget before their interim supply budget expired.
Life can be cruel.
The NDP ousted the PCs. They need time to fully understand the books and formulate a new budget consistent with their platform.
They know that. The Opposition knows that. And most importantly, the public knows that.
So while the Opposition is doing its job by pointing out Bill 3’s flaws the public really doesn’t care.
The good and the wacky
The first week of the 29th session of the Legislature saw the introduction of two additional bills.
Bill 201, Assuring Alberta’s Fiscal Future Act, is a private member’s bill introduced by PC MLA, Rick Fraser. The Bill, if passed, would force the government to introduce legislation to save for the Heritage Fund.
It’s an exercise in futility; not because saving for the future is a bad idea, but because a majority government will never pass an opposition party’s bill forcing it to act.
The only way for an opposition to force a majority government to do anything is to mobilize public opinion and shame the government into it. Given the PC’s track record on saving resource revenue for a rainy day, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
A more thoughtful bill is Bill 202, Alberta Local Food Act, proposed by NDP MLA Estefania Cortez-Vargas. Bill 202 is aimed at developing a sustainable local foods economy by connecting local farmers to larger markets and improving economic returns and food security in Alberta. This one is worth watching.
Thin skinned PCs
Last week we discovered just how thin skinned the PCs really are.
In Question Period Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said “we know that the past government has a proven track record of political interference.”** The PCs reacted by raising a point of order, arguing that Ms Hoffman’s comment imputed false or unavowed motives to an MLA or introduced a matter that offends the practices and precedents of the Assembly.
Mr Mason responded on Ms Hoffman’s behalf saying she recognized she went “a little too far” and was willing to withdraw the remark and apologize to the House.**
Interestingly, the PCs didn’t bat an eyelash when a Wildrose MLA said “…the last government politicized hospital infrastructure all over the province by keeping its infrastructure priorities secret and this caused serious harm to communities—I think we can both agree that this was wrong and unethical.”***
Surely being accused of politicizing decisions, seriously harming communities and being unethical is more offensive to delicate PC sensibilities than being accused of political interference. Perhaps the intensity of the sting depends on who is making the accusation.
So far so good
Rachel Notley, the brainy blond politician who drove a stake through the heart of the Progressive Conservative party, has four years to show Albertans what she and her party are made off.
She’s off to a great start.
*Hansard, June 16, 2015, p 14.
** Hansard, June 18, 2015, p 103 & 105
***Hansard, June 18, 2015, p 103