Since its election in April 2019, Alberta's United Conservative Party (UCP) government has passed two budgets, tabled 60 bills (as of press time), and changed regulations in multiple areas.
The rapid pace of its announcements and the speed at which bills are pushed through the legislature have made careful analysis of the UCP’s agenda challenging for the opposition parties, civil society organizations, and journalists. Moreover, the opportunities for these actors to do their important work of communicating with the public about the implications of the UCP’s policies have been curtailed, along with public debate.
While trying to keep up with the avalanche of new developments, we may lose sight of the big picture—the “cumulative effects” of these changes on the political landscape. Among these are the effects on democracy and citizenship.
We have witnessed a series of moves to strip resources from civil society organizations, remove or weaken rights to representation and collective bargaining, and repress opposition to government policies. The cumulative effect of these measures is a significant shift of power to the government to rule by decree and to employ state power to repress opposition.
There has been a full-blown return to the cronyism and patronage politics of the old PCs. The man appointed to head up the $3.5 million inquiry into the “foreign-funded anti-Alberta energy campaign,” Steve Allan, had supported the Justice Minister’s campaign for the leadership of the UCP. Allan went on to award a nearly $1 million contract to the law firm where his son was a partner and where Justice Minister Douglas Schweitzer had worked prior to being elected in 2019.
Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner, Marguerite Trussler, concluded in her July 6, 2020 report that, in appointing Mr. Allan, the minister had not violated the Conflicts of Interest Act; Trussler noted, however, that she did not have jurisdiction to investigate Mr. Allan. The UCP also removed members of the governance boards of public agencies and institutions mid-term, installing friends and donors in their places. In doing so, they ignored the rigorous and transparent search and appointment procedures, including diversity criteria, that had been established by the NDP.
Omnibus bills introduced in fall 2019 rolled back workers’ collective bargaining rights that had been instituted by the NDP government. The UCP restored the power of employers to use replacement workers during a strike or lock-out of essential services workers, and reinstated bargaining unit exclusions.
They also empowered ministers to issue secret directives to public sector employers (such as Alberta Health Services or university boards of governors) before and during collective bargaining, thereby asserting direct control over the governance of these supposedly arms-length public agencies and institutions. Bill 26 precluded farm workers from unionizing, and reduced occupational health and safety protections for workers, among other measures.
The control by pension plan members over the investment of their own pension funds was weakened by the government’s arbitrary transfer of some public sector pensions to the Alberta Investment Management Corporation, and by prohibiting any public sector pension plan from replacing AIMCo as its investment manager.
The Public Health Emergency Measures Act, introduced under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, gave cabinet ministers the authority to write laws and change penalties for violations without the approval of the legislature. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has characterized this move as “an end run around democracy” and is challenging its constitutionality. The minister of environment and parks has already used this law to suspend requirements for environmental monitoring and reporting.
"In the time remaining before the next election, we must find ways to reclaim and rebuild the conditions for democratic politics that (Alberta's United Conservative Party) has been actively undermining."
The constitutionality of Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, passed in May, has also been questioned by legal experts, and is being challenged in court by the Alberta Union of Public Employees.
This act gives sweeping powers to the government to declare any space (public or private) off-limits to the public and imposes heavy penalties that are intended to deter any protests that the government deems to interfere with “critical infrastructure.” Government spokespersons acknowledged that this legislation was motivated by the blockades, occupations, and other actions carried out in February 2020 in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en resistance to the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. Bill 1 mimics similar acts that have been passed in the United States.
The UCP has already attempted to intimidate Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists connected to the global climate justice movement by labelling them “anti-Albertan,” associating them with shadowy foreign interests, establishing a secretive inquiry to dig into their funding sources and question their charitable tax status, and has funded an “energy war room” (not subject to Freedom of Information requests) to back the public relations and lobbying efforts of the oil and gas industry.
And then there is the Constitutional Referendum Amendment Act, introduced in June 2020, which allows third parties to spend up to half a million dollars to promote a position in a referendum. The referenda are not triggered by civil society mobilization, as in other contexts, but can be called only by the premier (including during an election), on a question chosen and framed by the government, for political reasons.
Bill 29, the Local Authorities Election Amendment Act, also introduced in June, will give an advantage to candidates in municipal elections who have support from well-heeled donors.
The act removes the requirement for candidates to disclose their donors prior to election day, removes limits on spending by third-party advertisers outside the local election campaign period (from May 1 to election day in October), and allows individuals to donate up to $5,000 to as many candidates as they want during an election.
All of this is exacerbated by the UCP’s introduction, on July 8, of Bill 32, the Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act. The act cannot be characterized as anything other than a full-on attack on Alberta’s workers and their unions. The bill sets limits on how unions collect dues from their members and on what they can do with dues. It requires explicit consent from each individual member before the union can allocate any portion of their dues to political, social or charitable causes.
Of course, the UCP government has given itself the exclusive right to determine, through regulation, what constitutes “political, social or charitable” causes. It will likely put almost any public interest endeavour into this category.
The obvious impact of these limits, when combined with the legislation detailed above, will be to allow only the discourse and opinions that the UCP agrees with to be funded in the public realm. Groups advocating for labour rights, fiscal reform, public services, health care and education, as well as research institutes looking at progressive policy alternatives, all stand to lose their key source of funds.
We have not even touched on other bills, or on the anti-democratic effects of the UCP government’s budgets, which also serve to undermine the capacity and autonomy of civil society organizations and worsen social inequality. The measures needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have made it additionally difficult for citizens to demonstrate collective responses to the UCP’s anti-democratic agenda.
But in the time remaining before the next election, we must find ways to reclaim and rebuild the conditions for democratic politics that the UCP has been actively undermining.