Given everything that’s happened up to now, no one should be surprised by the United Conservative Party’s awkward flip-flop on Premier Danielle Smith’s rapidly deflating “Sovereignty Act.”
Think about it: Rank and file UCP MLAs, many of whom were not all that comfortable with the idea of being led by Ms. Smith in the first place, have rarely had such power.
The premier and her advisors have so disastrously fumbled introduction of the UCP’s legislative centrepiece, the so-called Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, that they’ve handed caucus members worried about what her program will do to their re-election chances a short-lived opportunity to do something about it.
Since it must be obvious to many in the caucus that neither Ms. Smith nor the radical advisors who helped her win the party leadership vote give a fig whether most Calgary MLAs can get re-elected, of course they were going to use this unexpected leverage to try to get the premier under control and restore a little sanity to the government’s legislative program.
Otherwise, they must surely understand, the chances of many of them remaining in power will soon be gone. It’s surely too late already for them to go into an election with any other leader.
This would explain why it was the UCP Caucus that issued yesterday’s press release announcing amendments to the act would be put before the Legislature, and not the government, as would be the normal procedure. (So don’t go looking for the release on the government’s website. You’ll never find it there.)
The release, which sounded as if it were written by a committee of legislators, began:
“This morning, Alberta’s United Conservative Caucus voted to propose amendments to Bill 1, the Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, to clarify that any changes to existing Alberta statutes that are outlined in a Resolution and introduced and passed by the Legislative Assembly under the Act, must also be introduced and passed separately through the regular Legislative Assembly process (first reading, second reading, committee of the whole, and third reading).”
The claim that this is a mere clarification, of course, is a fiction, albeit an understandable one. The meaning of the words of Bill 1, as presented to the Legislature, was quite plain.
The release continued: “The proposed amendments would also clarify that the harms addressed by the Act are limited to federal initiatives that, in the opinion of the Legislative Assembly, are unconstitutional, affect or interfere with Alberta’s constitutional areas of provincial jurisdiction or interfere (sic) or violate the charter rights of Albertans.”
This solves one serious problem with the act. It does not solve another: That any such attempt to usurp the courts, which in Canada’s system of democracy are responsible for determining the constitutionality of any legislation in the event of a jurisdictional dispute between levels of government, is sure to fail in the courts.
So, as the amendments are described caucus press release, the act is still unlikely to make the cut.
The third paragraph went on: “‘These proposed amendments reflect feedback we’ve received from Albertans who want to see aspects of Bill 1 clarified to ensure it gets across the finish line,’ Chief Government Whip Brad Rutherford said.” (Translation: They held a gun to my head and yelled about the calls they were getting from CAPP and the Chamber!) “‘I’m pleased that the voices of our MLAs and Albertans are being heard and respected.’”
Anything’s possible in a chaotic situation like this, but it seems unlikely any government whip, the party official tasked with ensuring caucus discipline in the Legislature, could be pleased with such an outcome, let alone having to put his name to it.
Finally, the release concluded: “Rutherford expressed disappointment with the NDP’s decision to vote against Bill 1 before even seeing it last week, as well as the NDP’s failure to propose any amendments they feel would strengthen the bill during legislative debate” … yadda-yadda … Rachel Notley … yadda-yadda … Trudeau-Singh coalition … yadda-yadda … etc.
This from the party that wore earplugs in the Legislature when the Opposition spoke and invented the Summer of Repeal, which, if memory serves, came two summers before The Best Summer Ever ™ – which arguably wounded former premier Jason Kenney seriously enough to make Ms. Smith’s already troubled premiership possible.
So Mr. Rutherford may have been disappointed, but he certainly couldn’t have been surprised.
The NDP argues that the entire act should be dropped, and promises it will be revoked if the Opposition party wins the next election.
Perhaps whoever in the UCP Caucus demanded the amendments didn’t fully trust the Premier’s Office to take care of this delicate business once Ms. Smith had been pushed into agreeing to partly defang her legislation – not that the courts wouldn’t have gotten around to doing the same thing sooner or later anyway.
The threat that backed the push, of course, must have been a message to the premier and her inner circle that if they didn’t do as instructed, enough MLAs would vote against the bill to defeat it.
This wouldn’t necessarily have brought down the government at a highly inopportune moment, but it would have been a heavy and ill-timed blow nonetheless.
I can’t recall a situation in Alberta or any other jurisdiction where a government’s signature piece of legislation was so sloppily written and unpopular that it had to be rewritten multiple times on the fly.
One caveat: We haven’t seen the actual wording of the amendments yet, so everything may change again tomorrow!