Friday, 15 January 2016

Guide to Alberta Politics:Recall, Plebiscite and Petition

In my last post, I discussed how elections work. 

Elections in Alberta are the means by which voters select representatives in the legislature. 

If the person or the party elected does not do the job electors hoped for in some parts of the world, there is a way to call for an end to a particular piece of legislation or remove a representative through peaceful and legal means.  However in Alberta, the only legal way for voters to effect change while a majority government is in power is through election. 

Recall Legislation allows registered voters to remove a politician from office and hold another election when voters have lost confidence in their representative.

British Columbia is the only province in Canada with recall legislation. The Province of British Columbia brought in Recall and Initiative legislation following a province wide referendum in 1995. Under this legislation, voters can petition to remove a representative after member has been in office for 18 months. The petition requires the signature of more than 40% of all eligible voters in the riding. No one has been recalled so far.

Under the same legislation, a registered voter can propose a new law or changes to an existing law. The voter must obtain the signatures of 10% of registered voters in each electoral district. To date, there have been nine petitions approved and one-regarding the Harmonized Sales Tax-was successful. 

Alberta very briefly had recall legislation from 1936 until 1937 when it was repealed. There have been several private members bills requesting recall legislation. None have passed. Wildrose MLA Lelea Aheer proposed such legislation in November 2015. Her proposed bill includes a recall based on a petition 20% of registered voters. It is highly unlikely to pass because the Wildrose does not control a majority of the seats in the house.  A summary can be found on David Cournoyer's blog.

We do not have recall legislation in Alberta. There is no mechanism to recall an MLA or a Premier other than another provincial election.

Plebiscites provide an opportunity for registered voters to have their voices heard on important issues by direct vote. 

The government may call for a plebiscite or, under section 128 of the the Elections Act the Lieutenant Governor may request one if she feels it is expedient. However, since the Lieutenant Governor is largely a figurehead, it would be unprecedented for her to act against an elected government. Even if she did, the plebiscite would not be binding. 

In other words, the government is under no legal obligation to conduct a plebiscite or act on the results.

Historically, there have been five plebiscites in Alberta:
  • 1971  Daylight Savings. Called by the government. Passed
  • 1967  Daylight SavingsCalled by the government. Defeated
  • 1957  Liquor SalesCalled by the government, this had two parts, one calling for more ALCB (government owned liquor stores) and one calling for "mixed drinking" to be allowed in bars.  Passed.
  • 1948:  Electrification: Called by the government, this asked if the province should create a crown corporation to deliver electricity. Split.
  • 1923:  Prohibition. Triggered by a vote in legislature after the presentation of a petition in accordance with the Citizens Referendum Law (no longer in effect), a petition for a plebiscite was presented by the Prohibition Committee which wanted to see the end of liquor sales in Alberta. The plebiscite was defeated.

Online and paper petitions are a great way for people to demonstrate their views on many issues. I have signed many petitions myself and in fact I used an online petition drum up support for the retention of air ambulance services in my community. However, what is their legal status in Alberta?

There are circumstances when a petition can be legally filed.  For example, under the Elections Act, a citizen can petition the government in the case of a controverted elections, ie when the legitimacy of an election is in doubt. Citizens can also petition the Minister of Municipal Affairs on certain municipal issues.

Citizens may also petition the government of Alberta directly. Petitions must be presented by a Member of the Legislative Assembly. Members are not obligated to present these petitions. The petitions must be in proper form and must be reviewed by Parliamentary Council before they can be presented. Petitions cannot call for any money to be spent by the government.

Neither the Assembly nor the Government are compelled to take any action on a petition.

To recap, we do not have recall legislation in Alberta and will not have it any time soon. The elected government is not legally obligated to act on either a plebiscites or a petition. 

The next provincial election will take place in 2019. As a citizen, there are many ways you can effect change. But to effect a change in leadership, you must wait until the next election.