The Alberta Legislature, in its current, shrouded state (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Laws that let voters recall representatives with whom they’ve grown dissatisfied have an undeniable appeal, even as they threaten to unleash constitutional mayhem and make some jurisdictions all but ungovernable.

So it was one thing for Jason Kenney to promise to implement this hardy perennial of Alberta’s aspirational politics when his new United Conservative Party was storming along atop the polls on its way to a strong majority.

Justice Minister Kaycee Madu (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

It was another thing entirely for Mr. Kenney in the present circumstances, deeply unpopular personally, his party lagging the NDP in several polls, and a few of his MLAs potentially vulnerable to recall.

Mr. Kenney’s justice minister, for example, the man who introduced the bill yesterday and the only UCP MLA in Edmonton, defeated his NDP opponent by only 715 votes. It’s highly doubtful Kaycee Madu could repeat that feat today.

But under pressure from his supporters to keep this promise and mocked by his NDP opponents for not daring to keep it, Mr. Kenney obviously felt he had something to prove. 

Cynically, he opted for the traditional political response to demands for recall legislation. To wit, Bill 52, the Recall Act, sets the bar for recall so high – 60 days to collect verifiable signatures from 40 per cent of the voters in a riding that could have population well over 50,000 people – it’s doubtful it can ever be successfully used. 

NDP Democratic Reform Critic Heather Sweet summed up the bill as “virtually impossible to use in the real world.” 

In the unlikely event a petition were successful, there would still have to be a recall vote. Only one recall petition is permitted per MLA per term, and it can’t happen until 18 months after a general election and six months before the next one. 

In British Columbia, where a similar law’s been on the books since 1955, petitions have been started 26 times, but have only met the threshold a half a dozen times. Of those, five were rejected by Elections B.C. and the targeted politician quit before the vote in the sixth. In other words, no Alberta MLA from any party needs to lose any sleep over this nonsense 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: Paul Taillon, Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

But Mr. Kenney can go around saying that, thanks to him, Albertans can now hold their politicians accountable, never mind that they can’t really, and that he’s kept his promise. Indeed, that’s pretty much what he did say in yesterday’s news release. 

If you view this as a betrayal of the UCP base, I suppose it’s faintly ironic that this bill was tabled on the Ides of March. But, really, it’s just politics as usual pretty well everywhere. 

The UCP did introduce one interesting twist – extending a recall mechanism to municipal elections with a more generous timeline and no need for a recall vote. 

This may have been a sop to some of the right-wing groups in Calgary that have a hate on for Mayor Naheed Nenishi. 

It may not have occurred either to the government or to the likes of the market fundamentalist advocacy group previously known as the Manning Centre that if they try to use this, they and their funding are bound to become the focus of any fightback campaign. 

NDP Opposition Democratic Reform Critic Heather Sweet (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Once they think about that potential, it seems likely they’ll reconsider such thoughts and revert to sniping and whinging on social media, which may not be as effective but are less likely to encourage members of the public to think too deeply about, say, the dark sources of some of their money. 

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the secretive self-described “tax watchdog” once headed by Premier Kenney himself, has been lobbying for the inclusion of municipal politicians in the B.C. legislation. News releases making such demands, it is fair to say, are an excellent opportunity to raise funds from gullible members of the public. 

The potential for mischief in smaller municipalities, though, is greater, and may not always be to the liking of conservative parties or their auxiliary groups. 

In the unlikely event a recall threatened a politician such as Mr. Kenney, of course, that would be the end of the legislation for another 84 years. 

That’s how long it’s been since Social Credit Premier Bill Aberhart’s 1936 recall law threatened Mr. Aberhart’s own seat in Okotoks-High River. The act was efficiently repealed in 1937. 

Eight private member’s recall bills have been proposed in Alberta since 1993, blogger Dave Cournoyer pointed out, but cooler heads have prevailed each time. 

Teachers’ union mounts legal challenge of arbitrary transfer of pension management 

The Alberta Teachers Association has gone to court to argue Finance Minister Travis Toews’s Ministerial Order transferring management of the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund to Crown-owned Alberta Investment Management Corp. is unreasonable and should be overturned. 

Alberta Teachers Association President Jason Schilling (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The terms and conditions imposed in the order are inconsistent with the Teachers’ Pension Plans Act, the ATA argues in documents filed Wednesday and noted in a news release on Friday.

“Teachers were very concerned that investment management for their pensions was required to be transferred from ATRF to AIMCo with no option by ATRF to select other investment managers,” ATA President Jason Schilling said in an affidavit. “This decision was made without any consultation with the Association when teachers make more than half of the contributions to the fund. Pension benefits for services after 1991 are not guaranteed by the Government so teachers bear half the risk of any shortfalls or deficiencies.”

The legal move will keep the unpopular effort by the UCP Government on the front burner and draw attention to the perception AIMCo’s management of other public pension funds has fallen short of expectations. 

The ATA is both a professional association and union for Alberta’s approximately 46,000 public, separate and francophone schoolteachers. 

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  1. I have always thought of recall as an unnecessary populist sop by an opposition trying to get elected. If the incumbent government is already so unpopular, usually a year or two takes care of the problem when an election is held. If not, well perhaps the unpopularity was transient or not that real.

    Sometimes, deeply unpopular governments do stage seemingly miraculous recoveries, like the BC Liberals or the Alberta PCs did the last time they won majorities but more often than not they stumble inexorably to defeat like the PC’s in Mulroney’s last term or the Federal Liberals under Paul Martin. If the public really wants to get rid of the party in power, they don’t need recall to do it. They just need a bit of patience, surely Alberta can wait a year or two.

    The high threshold and the different rules for municipal government does lead one to question the sincerity of Kenney and the UCP on this issue. By making it difficult, he can make it unlikely recall can be used against him, while still claiming to have kept his promise. At least Aberhart was more forthright dealing with the same dilema. Perhaps Kenney’s too cute plan will appeal to some UCP partisans, but I think most are not so gullible and will recognize faux populism when they see it.

  2. I think the UCP is merely grandstanding with this. Why wasn’t this recall legislation enacted sooner, as in right after the UCP’s (highly questionable) rise to power in April of 2019? It’s also just a rather weak attempt to make the UCP look like they are respecting the wishes of Albertans, despite their many epic failures, which have cost Albertans a fortune. Furthermore, it just seems like it could be a revenge move by the UCP, and this recall legislation will be used for other political parties, and other levels of government, such as municipal politicians. It’s also likely that this legislation would lack any teeth, due to technicalities. There is growing distaste with the UCP, and come 2023, during the provincial election debate, Rachel Notley will basically obliterate the premier of Alberta, if he isn’t finished after his approval rating may see him unfit to lead the UCP. Kaycee Madu isn’t likely to keep his seat after 2023. I doubt that a lot of UCP MLAs will keep their seats after 2023.

  3. The best recall is an election. Voters can do a big recall of the governing party then.

    As for the municipal recall, Nenshi proved he is well enough liked to defeat a concerted attempt to withstand the Manning Centre’s shenanigans in the last municipal election.

  4. It is good to recall the circumstances whence BC’s “Recall” law— Citizens Initiative legislation—came. Like Dave points out, it was indeed a sop of populist intent; it was also a desperate hope that the binding Referendum on the general election ballot would make the tired Socred government more popular—it was a last minute kind of thing.

    Recall there had been no public demand to introduce CI laws, no NGO movements, no promotions by right-wing ‘think tanks,’ no crusade of newspaper editorials. It was introduced, somewhat like Jason Kenney’s done, out of the blue.

    It was, rather, the Socred cabinet which cooked up this election campaign cookie—with more than a dash of disingenuousness since, naturally, it didn’t really want the measure to backfire upon its own MLAs. What it really wanted was for the party to survive the next election since remaining in power was, by all rational accounts, a foregone conclusion, the venerable party of WAC Bennett having sunk way too low in BC citizens’ estimation (recall that the BC Socred regime had lasted, with one three-year, NDP interruption, for four decades).

    The idea must have been that, were the Socreds to have any hope of resurrection after the thrashing voters’ were fixing to give it, their presumed Loyal Opposition might find CI legislation a handy club with which to attack the NDP, likely winner of the approaching election. However, political gallows cast long shadows across the old party in the early morning sun of their final day in power: the ghost of another party resurrected for the occasion, and the Liberals, then two decades dead, were instead elected Official Opposition. A small Socred rump haunted the Assembly until former Vancouver mayor gordo campbell usurped the Opposition, turned it sharply into a neo-right party, and absorbed it along with any other bits of Socred shrapnel that’d been blasted to the fringes of BC politics.

    The Socreds’ prayers were half answered, at least: voter’s resoundingly approved implementation of CI legislation, but did not approve the Socred government. The Referendum bound the new governing party, the new Opposition party, and all other parties elected to the Assembly to strike a committee to draft the details. In a highly unusual example of cross-partisan consensus, the all-party committee set the “Recall” threshold at 40% of the number of riding voters who’d voted in the preceding election. It was one, very brief respite from BC’s normally hyper-polarized politics.

    Losing his first campaign against the NDP infuriated gordo: his BC Liberals (the “BC” pre-fix now needed to distinguish from real liberal parties) not only won the so-called “popular vote” but lost the first-past-the-post contest to an NDP itself in the midst of internal turmoil, Mike Harcourt, a moderate and the party’s first Premier in nearly two decades having recently resigned under a cloud (not of his own making) to be replaced by longtime lefty Glen Clark. gordo groomed a young keener in the BC Liberal caucus to initiate dozens of Recalls against NDP MLAs, purely for counter-partisan antagonism, not for the ostensible reasons given. Most of the few dozen Recalls ever initiated in BC were part of Kevin Falcon’s “Total Recall” crusade. None were successful, most ultimately abandoned before coming to a vote, but it foretold of the systems-gaming the BC Liberals would become infamous for after they ended the NDP’s first two-term government in the following election. They governed for 16 years thence.

    In fact, only one MLA was ever taken out by Recall, a BC Liberal, as it happened, who resigned his seat before the Recall came to an official vote (polls had predicted he would be handily Recalled). Of nearly 30 Recall attempts, none have so far succeeded.

    As it turned out, the only thing BC’s CI law was successful at wasn’t Recall at all but, rather, the demise of the Harmonized Sales Tax which gordo promised not to implement during his last election campaign—but went ahead and did anyway soon after his party won its third term. The outrage crossed party lines but voters in gordo’s Point Gray riding didn’t have to initiate a Recall in this case: the HST lie sparked such an uproar that gordo tied Richard Nixon for lowest popularity-rating the venerable polling outfit Gallup had ever surveyed, just nine percent; gordo’s caucus fired him instead.

    No, it was exercise of some of the other provisions of CI that eventually killed the hated tax: first the Anti-HST Petition (which garnered at least 10% of voters’ signatures in every riding in BC) and then the at-large HST Referendum (50%+1 threshold) which the Petition had forced. In 800 years of Westminster parliamentary history, it was the first time—and remains the only time— a legislated tax was repealed by force of popular measure.

    So, despite the usual complaints that CI thresholds prohibit its intended effectiveness, you can’t say it never worked, only that Recall—the most popular aspect of the Socreds’ desperate cookie—never has. (Really, if you think about it, 40% is the only workable threshold, overturning a riding vote with only somewhat over one-third of the vote rankling most democrats, and anything over 40% likely exceeding the proportion of votes by which most pluralities are won, anyhow. Remind that, in a close parliament, the Recall of a single MLA might overturn the entire government. The matter isn’t the threshold but, rather, the facility by which voters may attempt it. It appears Kenney has made it harder by adding a step.)

    The HST imbroglio was a hot mess that cost both the BC premier his job (for his campaign lie) and the Loyal Opposition leader hers (for not attacking gordo aggressively enough on his way out the door). gordo interfered with the CI process by firing the respected Chief Electoral Officer of 25 years and replacing him with a BC Liberal “Acting” Chief by fiat, once again gaming the system which doesn’t require the usual all-party consensus for this emergency contingency (this Acting Chief had to be taken to court to force him to release the results of the Anti-HST Petition). But, most strangely, gordo set the Referendum threshold at 50%+1 when he could have left it at the supermajority recommended for forcing parliament to repeal a law by popular measure. It was one of the last things he did as premier before being ignominiously dumped by his cabinet.

    But why did he do something which ostensibly ran counter to his cause, something that made it easier to get rid of the HST he’d connived so discretely to impose, something for which he’d risked his whole political career?

    I think the answer is obvious: after his lie was exposed (on campaign, he said the HST wasn’t “even on the radar” but, after he’d won, evidence disproved this claim—thus “the lie”), gordo wanted to make nice with the citizens he’d offended so much by lying to them about a sales tax. Reducing the Referendum threshold was a cookie that, as gordo probably predicted, would make the HST easier to get rid of (whether he’d predicted the outrage the lie would ultimately precipitate is another question for which we might never get an answer).

    Another cookie, just like the Socreds had proffered two decades earlier. And, like that episode, voters resoundingly concurred (to quash the HST)—but too late for either the Socreds’ or gordo’s supplication.

    I think it’s telling when a politician offers a cookie that he—or any politician—would be uncomfortable with if it were ever used, especially when we already have evidence that it seldom works out the way anybody wants or might have expected. Certainly Alberta’s K-Boy finds himself as unpopular as the moribund BC Socreds and a disgraced premier did, and, tanking at the polls with grim electoral prospects, in similarly desperate circumstances. We might allow him this distinction, though: he’s made some of Alberta’s CI even harder to achieve instead of easier like gordo did. The BC premier was only days away from his political demise, whereas K-Boy has two years to go.

    I think the story here is more about desperate circumstances than the efficacy of CI legislation. Evidently, politicians don’t really like CI and only offer it when backed into a corner. Such is their respect for their electorates.

    Epilogue: one of the sordid episodes which brought the Socreds so low was premier Bill Vander Zalm whose flamboyancy not only failed to turn his party’s decline around, but also resulted in his own cabinet firing him in the wake of a scandal (of his own making). Thus, one could say the CI cookie was put on the ballot because of him. Perhaps the all-party committee’s CI design and NDP government, which was legally bound to ratify it, were satisfied Recall has been so unsuccessful in BC, but I doubt anybody could have predicted that CI’s response to the HST scandal would succeed in such a precedent-setting way decades after the legislation was implemented. Nor that it was that very same Bill Vander Zalm who sponsored the Initiative two decades after he’d been ignominiously booted from his premiership.

    When, all those years later, the once disgraced former Socred stood at the podium with co-sponsor and, anomalously, longtime NDP pundit Bill Tieleman, and crowds roared in adulation with the Referendum defeat of the hated HST, was Bill Vander Zalm the only one to appreciate the irony of it all?

    You can throw the electorate a cookie, but you can’t make this stuff up. Nobody would believe it.

  5. No surprise whatsoever.

    This bill is about optics, not substance. Kenney is hardly going to support a bill from one of his Cabinet ministers that might further alienate any UCP MLA’s.

    After all, job security and remaining in power is Job 1 for each and every one of them.

  6. From the Calgary Herald: “Each MLA could only face one recall vote per term, while just one petition for their recall could be active at a time. Only constituents could commence a recall application, as sitting MLAs would be prohibited from using the tool against one another.”

    Kamikaze constituents, anyone?

  7. Even Kenney knew he was full of sh*t during this press release…the smirk said it all. He really is masterful at the game of politics. And I don’t say that as a compliment.

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