The NDP in Power: Week One

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.

Democratic reform

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.

Justice Minister Ganley

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.

Progressive Taxation

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.

The Budget

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”.

Premier Notley

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.

Health Minister Hoffman

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

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16 Responses to The NDP in Power: Week One

  1. Einar Davison says:

    I haven’t had a chance to read the full Bill yet. One can keep corporations and unions from contributing to political parties. However if you do not do the same for special interest groups what have you accomplished. For instance can the Alberta Federation of Labour make a political contribution, why would unions not funnel money to labour “special interest groups”. The same could be said of the Wildrose Party and their finance critic Derek Fildebrandt’s former employer Canadian Taxpayer Federation from making a contribution to the Wildrose. Why can’t the drilling contractors association or the bankers association do the same. It makes it a little harder but not impossible. Don’t get me wrong I think it is a big step forward but the unintended consequence is that it might make it hard to track where the money really does come from. If you really want to close the potential of influence, I’d restrict the maximum political donation to $2,500 per year and only eligible voters can make a contribution. Raising money will be more difficult but it will ensure that only voters can influence politics in our province.

    In regards to the Wildrose claiming this is their idea. I have only two probable snarky things to say.
    1. If they were still getting corporate donations like they did in 2012 (one which just happened to be Tervita OMG 🙂 you would hear the same whining as the PC’s are doing.

    2. If they were really serious, and they did come up with the idea, they should just be happy for the win. If it serves the interest of Albertans then who cares who gets it passed. Just the usual Wildrose right wing being disingenuous again. Their base will think it was their idea anyway.

    I didn’t think it would take too long for the right wings proclaiming their willingness to try and work with the government to disappear and the slow decline back to mudslinging would begin again. It’s easy to point fingers when you are in the opposition and even easier to sell people on having world class health and education systems (perhaps they mean’t 3rd world) while running the government as the Tories did, subsidizing taxes and cutting essentials to the bone. I wonder where Mr. Fildebrandt and his ilk planned to find the money.

    I’m willing to take a wait and see approach with the new NDP government, they can’t be any worse than the crap we had to deal with over the last 30 years at least and they aren’t the Wildrose. Maybe there is a God!

    • Einar, I think the Bill might address the issue you raise with respect to special interest groups. The Bill says only a “person” can make a political contribution and defines “person” as an individual. It also includes provisions elsewhere that lump unincorporated associations and organizations in with prohibitions on actions taken by trade unions and employee organizations. So it appears the government intends to prohibit contributions by these groups as well. Having said that I need to watch the debate on this Bill to see whether this is correct.

      You’re right that the mudslinging will begin soon enough. Today Rachel Notley spoke up about the need for a national inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women. She was supported by all the other party leaders except Brian Jean who criticized Notley for not doing more about this on a provincial level. This of all issues was not the one for the Wildrose to use as a platform to attack the government.

      • Einar Davison says:

        Then I’m a happy camper, for years I was angry that large corporations would max out their annual contribution to the PC’s and then the Wildrose, The result being that except at election time the needs of everyday Albertans was all but forgotten. I was hoping for this legislation but worried that somehow there would be a “work around”.
        I remember back in 2012 Randy Erasman the former head of Encana gave the Wildrose party $10,000 and this after Encana itself had also made a substantial contribution. When someone can contribute that much to the bottom line of a party, you know darn well that they have influence. I felt that $2,500 is still a lot but it is within the reach of a lot more people and that makes it harder for one person or one company to gain influence.
        On your point about the inquiry. Don’t you know that unless you can vote for the Wildrose or subscribe to their ideology they really don’t have time or care for you. It’s hard to care about people when by nature you are just mean. I saw lots of that during the election. They are like telemarketers, if they can’t get your vote they have no time for you. It kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if they would have formed the government. I may not be an NDP supporter, but I’m so happy the Wildrose didn’t win the election and I have the best hopes that the next election they will return to being a fringe party. Maybe we will be able to save our health and education system now. Sorry for the rant, just my “humble” opinion.

      • Einar I’m hopeful that the NDP has addressed the “work around” issue, but all this talk about creating PACs (political action groups) has got me concerned. Apparently conservative supporters have formed the HarperPAC to counteract the impact of what the media describes as the “left-leaning” Engage Canada organization. Both the HarperPAC and Engage Canada are raising money from individuals to fund attack ads.

        The reason I’m worried about the HarperPAC is that when I lived in the US I saw first hand how supposedly voluntary PACs operate. In my company the CEO “encouraged” employees to form a PAC. He made it crystal clear who the PAC should be supporting. The PAC sent out information on the CEO’s preferred candidate and kept a record of who made contributions. Employees at the manager or above level were expected to contribute and no one believed for one minute that the CEO wasn’t aware of who they supported. I don’t believe the Engage Canada group has any inroads into corporations, but given that the Harperites are modelling the HarperPAC in the US example, the HarperPAC could easily become the mechanism by which corporations continue to “contribue” to political parties and candidates. There isn’t any talk about any PACs being formed at the provincial level but the fact that Jonathan Denis, ex-PC Justice Minister, Brad Tennant, ex-WR policy director and Zoe Addintgon, ex-deputy chief of staff to Prentice are involved tells me it’s just a matter of time.

    • jerrymacgp says:

      $2,500 sounds like a lot, if it’s a lump sum. But if a party supporter contributes a couple of hundred a month via pre-authorized payments, for example, that’s $2,400 for the year. Then if they toss in another hundred bucks, say at the end of the year, or in the spring from their tax refund, there’s your $2,500. So it wouldn’t be hard for an ordinary upper middle class individual, say a professional with a respectably high but not outrageous salary, to contribute that much without having to be a rich, 1% type. I’m sure even the NDP has a number of supporters who fit that profile, and the other parties as well.

      • Einar Davison says:

        I guess I should have fleshed it out a little better. This would be a maximum $2,500 per person per year. Whether you give it all to a party, or to the association or split it between both but the maximum would be $2,500 annually. If you make it too onerous it will make it harder for parties to raise money and that would be equally bad for democracy. There has to be a balance and it should be somewhere that is within the range of a larger group of individuals to contribute. I was just so disgusted by the outright and blatant ability of very wealthy individuals and corporations to basically purchase influence. My final thought is that the NDP has gone a long way to turn this around, I still think the amounts are too high, but a step in the right direction. However it is just as important for we the electorate to ensure that our rights are not hijacked by our own negligence. If we would have been more vocal, less willing to give the governing party (the PC’s) a free reign to do what they pleased over the last 30 years, this wouldn’t have happened.
        The election was barely 2 months ago, and there is 30 years of mess to clean up. I’m willing to take a wait and see attitude and give the NDP a chance to prove themselves. Because quite frankly if you put any other party in power (with the exception of the PC’s) every other party would have the same issues and problems to deal with. Just my humble opinion.

  2. Garry says:

    Why am I an Ontarian, reading what the Alberta NDP are doing . Why do I care ….

    Because they are a roll model for the rest of the country ..

    The Orange wave is coming to a theatre near you… Do you have your ticket yet ?

    • Garry, I’m glad you’ve bought your ticket. Many of us in Alberta didn’t think we’d ever free ourselves from the PCs…and then on May 5 we decided we’d had enough and here we are with a majority NDP government! If the conservatives can be tossed out in Alberta, they can be tossed out everywhere.
      All the very best in Ontario.

  3. Leo says:

    Agree, great start by the new government!

  4. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Look at that — a whole post about Alberta politics and all the accompanying photos are of women!

    I know, I know — women and men can both do just fine (or just horribly) in many walks of life, politics included, but just to see a discussion of politics-in-general (rather than “women’s issues in particular”) and the headliners are all women rather than all men: it really is remarkable. Go NDP.

    • I know, isn’t it great! When Notley was putting together her cabinet she had the great good fortune of being able to draw from the most diverse caucus this province has ever seen (that in itself says the NDP isn’t the party of the old white guys). I thought she did a great job in mixing in the newbies with the old hands and I’m sure the fact that she has a clear vision for moving forward will be a great help to both the newbies and those like Mason who’ve been around the block more than once.

  5. Carlos Beca says:

    I believe they have been doing fine. It is way too early for any possible evaluation I think.
    I agree with you that Rachel Notley will not be bullied by the oil companies. She has lots of experience to allow any of that. She has been in the trenches as a lawyer to know exactly what she can expect from them. This is my opinion.
    There are lots of very green people that will have to learn the ropes but I think they will be fine soon. It is not that difficult to do better than what the PCs did. We cannot forget that after 43 years they left us a 7 billion dollar hole and only 17 billion dollars in the Heritage Fund. Furthermore they left a huge infrastructure deficit and a Legislature with extremely bad anti-democratic habits. It is not easy to clean it all up.
    The right wing media is already on them like vampires and I fear that more than their performance. These people have no ethics and they lie in order to score the point.
    Anyway I have something way more exciting to read. It is quite entertaining – I do not see the Fraser Institute talk about this. Not even the main stream media.

    • Carlos, thanks for the link. The last sentence in the article was especially telling. “A country can be judged on what it chooses to tax and what it chooses to subsidize. And by that yardstick, this nation currently seems to care more about cheap energy than almost anything else”.

      It’s time Canadians paid more attention to where their tax dollars are going. I just read a story about Dr Robert Brownstone, a top neuroscience researcher who is the head of spinal cord research at Dalhousie. He also runs a motor control lab working with patients with Parkinson’s disease, ALS and epilepsy. He’s leaving Halifax to take up a post in England. Why? Because of Harper’s policy to short change discovery research in favour of applied research.

      The really sad thing about Dr Brownstone’s decision (over and above the fact that we’re losing him and the other top researchers who are going with him) is that it signals to all discovery science researchers that if you want to engage in discovery research Canada is not the place to do it.

  6. David Grant says:

    I agree with Susan that the new government is off to a pretty good start. While the minimum wage increases are too slow, they will happen those who work in the service industry and need a wage increase. It is amazing the criticism that the NDP has been criticized so much at this point given that they have only just begun to govern. It quite often is similar to the criticism that President Obama has received from the Tea Party and the Republicans for things like “killing your grandparents” to turning the US into a Communist country. In both scenarios, you just keep trying to govern and hope that people will come to see them for what they really are-modest, moderate steps in the right direction for all.

    • I agree David. The NDP know what they have to do and are starting to do it, notwithstanding all the flak they’re getting from the right. I’d forgotten about the anti-Obama hysteria, thanks for the reminder.

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