Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Guide to Alberta Politics:The Lieutenant Governor

In my previous guides I talked about the democratic process in Alberta. Democracy exists so that the will of the people can be carried out in government. However, under the Canadian Constitution, we are a constitutional monarchy. The Queen is our head of state. Serving "at her Majesty's pleasure" are representatives who play a largely ceremonial role in government.

Canada is a federal constitutional monarchy. The Queen is our head of state. Elected official swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen and so do new citizens.
I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
The Queen's representative in Canada is the Governor General and in Alberta, the Lieutenant Governor (typically pronounced "leftenant" in British fashion as my friend Glenn likes to remind me). Their roles are a legacy of Canada's history as a colony of Great Britain. 

The Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor have power on paper but their role is primarily ceremonial. As unelected leaders, their job is generally to ensure that the will of the people is carried out through the decisions made by elected representatives.

Every province has a Lieutenant Governor who is appointed by the federal equivalent, the Governor General, who is appointed upon the advice of the Prime Minister upon recommendation from the Queen's Privy Council.

Alberta's Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Lois Mitchell, was sworn in on June 14, 2015. Like all Lieutenant Governors, she was chosen based on her record of service to her province and community. She is a successful business woman with a history of volunteerism, especially in amateur sport.

What does she do? The position of the Lieutenant Governor is apolitical. This means that the Lieutenant Governor does not get involved in any political activity, intervene in day-to-day issues and decisions made by Alberta government ministries, or advocate for groups or individuals seeking to change government. She does not belong to any political party and cannot show favour to one party over another. If you contact her to ask her to act on your behalf, she will forward your concerns to the elected government.

She has two primary roles.

Constitutional She ensures the constitution is upheld. She summons and ends the sitting of the Legislature, reads the Speech from the Throne, and dissolves the Legislature when an election is called. If there are irregularities in how an election is conducted, she She ensures the province has a Premier and swears in the cabinet. She gives Royal Assent to bills passed by the the Legislative Assembly. She also signs Orders-in-Council and other official documents.
  1. Royal Assent:  The Lieutenant Governor can use something called "royal prerogative" against the elected government if she feels a bill contravenes the constitution or infringes on fundamental rights and freedoms. This only happens if the bill violates the constitution or gives the province powers that  belong to the federal government.  Historically, this occurred three times in 1937 when the Social Credit government was in power. Two of the bills passed in the house would have put banks under provincial control.The third limited freedom of the press. The decision to refuse to give assent to all three bills was later upheld by the Supreme Court. While these three bills never became law, the Premier of Alberta William Aberhart had a little hissy fit, closed his house and took away his official car.  Yet the Lieutenant Governor remained in his position for another 23 years and the Social Credit party with its majority government remained in power for another 34 years.

    in 2000, Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole wanted to discuss a private health care bill with then Premier Ralph Klein. It was suspected she might withhold Royal Assent to a bill that was protested by thousands of Albertans. However, she was unable to discuss the bill with the Premier and she did eventually give Royal Assent.
  2. Ceremonial  She presides over many ceremonies, including the presentation of awards to Albertans who have shown bravery and dedication. She hosts the Royal Family when they visit Alberta and represents the Queen at numerous functions including meeting visiting dignitaries.
What does "Lieutenant Governor in Council" mean? This term can be found on many legal documents. It refers to the actions the Lieutenant Governor makes with the advice of the elected government. It does not refer to actions she might theoretically take against the government.

The Lieutenant Governor is a lovely lady. She does a wonderful job representing the Queen.  She does her best to embody the words spoken by the Queen decades ago: 
I want the Crown in Canada to represent everything that is best and most admired in the Canadian ideal. I will continue to do my best to make it so during my lifetime, and I hope you will all continue to give me your help in this task.” I would like to repeat those words today as together we continue to build a country that remains the envy of the world.
The Lieutenant Governor is not elected by Albertans. She will not intervene in the daily workings of democracy in our province and I don' think we would want her to. 

You can read more on the official page.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Social Studies Teacher Laments a Lifetime of Accomplishing Absolutely Nothing

WEST BUTTE ALBERTA    A retired Albertan educator is demoralized after learning that his former students learned absolutely nothing during their 12+ years of public education.

      "I didn't think they were all paying attention in class," said 63 year old Social Studies teacher Grant McIteer of West Butte, Alberta, "but I wasn't thinking it was quite this bad. I can't help but wonder what I was doing wrong all those years I taught high school." Upon learning more than 56,000 Albertans believed they could remove a majority government from power based on an online petition, he shook his head and continued, "I can accept the poor spelling and bad grammar. I can even accept that no matter what I do, some students still believe Hitler was a communist. But the fundamentally flawed understanding of the democratic process is a bit hard to take." Echoing the sentiments of dozens of teachers across the province, McIteer continued, "Recent events have called into question whatever it was that I thought I had accomplished after more than 30 years as a teacher." 

     When reached for comment, an unidentified representative of the province's Ministry of Education stated "We're not really sure what to think at this point. Alberta has an excellent curriculum and traditionally one of the best records in the world when it comes to test scores. So to learn a significant number of Albertans believe they can call on the unelected Lieutenant Governor to overturn democratically enacted legislation is a bit confusing." 

     Rumours of a Royal Commission are unfounded at this point, but something the government has not ruled out. "Something went wrong, there is no doubt about it. We're just not sure what."

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.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Guide to Alberta Politics

So I guess some of you weren’t listening in Social Studies. Maybe you thought Social Studies was boring and had no impact on your life. Now the economy has tanked. You're mad. You want to blame somebody. You want to blame the government. You think if you got rid of the government, things would be better. Maybe it would help if you understood how the government is elected and how you can change it. 

Here’s a guide.

Things we have

  1. Political Parties. A political party is a group of people who share a set of beliefs about how government should operate. They make this known to the public through their platform- a set of promises they intend to keep if elected. People vote for the political party whose platform they agree with.  Follow the links to read the platform of the ruling New Democratic Party and opposition Wildrose.

    Alberta has 9 political parties.

    The political party that elects the most MLAs to the legislature forms the government. As of May 5 2015 that party is the New Democratic Party.
  2. A Premier  The Premier is the leader of the political party that holds the most seats in the legislature. Albertans do not directly elect their leader.

    Alberta's Premier is Rachel Notley, leader of the New Democratic Party.
  3. Ridings The province is divided into areas called "ridings" or electoral districts. Ridings vary in population and size. For example, the riding of Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley has just over 23,000 people while Spruce Grove-St. Albert has a population of nearly 52,000. The person in the riding who gets the most votes becomes the MLA. The party that elects the most MLAs becomes the ruling party and forms government.
  4. First Past the Post  Alberta, like all other provinces in Canada, use the "first past the post" or "plurality" system of electing representatives. This system is also known as "winner-take-all" because whoever gets the most votes wins. Let’s look at how this would work with some simple numbers. Let’s say you have 3 candidates running and 10 voters.
    Scenario #1 Majority Government In the scenario that follows, Party A wins. It has more seats than any other party. It also has more seats that all the other parties combined. It would form what is called a majority government. If Party B and C were to join forces they would have fewer seats than Party A . 
    We have a majority government in Alberta. 
    Party A
    Party B
    Party C

    Scenario #2 Minority Government In the scenario that follows, Party A wins. It has more seats than any other party but it doesn’t have the most votes overall. It would form what is called a minority government. If Party B and C were to join forces or form a coalition government, Party A could be defeated in a motion of no confidence.  
    We don’t have a minority government in Alberta.
    Party A
    Party B
    Party C
  5. Motion of No Confidence The ONLY way an elected government can be democratically removed from office is if it fails a motion of no confidence. This only happens when there is a minority government. Alberta has never had a minority government. It does not have one now. While the opposition could make a motion of no confidence, when there is a majority government it would not pass and such an action would be pointless. See above.
  6. Members of the Legislative Assembly or MLAs These are the people Albertans choose to represent them in the legislature. Each MLA in Alberta today belongs to a political party. MLAs tend to vote with their party on any laws that are proposed. There are 87 MLAs in Alberta. As of Jan 9 2016:
  • NDP 54
  • Wildrose 22 
  • Progressive Conservative 8 
  • Liberal 1
  • Alberta Party 1
  • Vacant 1
       The opposition parties combined have 32 MLAs. 
       That means the NDP is a majority government
       In other words, they hold the majority of the seats. 
       If every MLA who is not NDP voted against the NDP, they could not defeat them.
Alberta:Not as conservative as you thought

7.     Elections. In Alberta, citizens vote for the people they want to represent them in the legislature. This is called representative government. Alberta holds regular and fair elections.

Alberta’s Election Accountability Amendment Act that says elections must be held between March 1 and May 31 every four years. The last election was May 5 2015.

The next election will take place on or before May 31 2019 following a request from the Premier to the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the legislature.

Things we don’t have

  1. Recall legislation
  2. Proportional representation
  3. Plebiscites to demand another

    Stay tuned for more Social Studies lessons!