At the time this article was
written Thomas M.J. Bateman and David M. Thomas taught in the Department of
Economics and Political Science at Mount Royal College in Calgary Alberta
Parliamentary reform is never as
simple as it seems. It is always tied to larger issues of political culture and
to the uneasy mix of British and American influences that constitute Alberta's
political system. Recently interest in parliamentary reform stems from
traditional dissatisfaction with politicians and parties and is driven by the
larger social, economic, and demographic changes that have taken place in the
province. In recent years, opposition parties have demanded specific reforms.
The Progressive Conservative government responded in part by creating the
Select Special Committee on Parliamentary Reform in July 1992. This article
takes a closer look at the forces that have driven the issue to the fore. It
also examines the nature of the reforms sought and hazards a guess as to the
prospects for serious, sustained, and systemic changes to the role of the
Alberta's legislature has for most
of its history quietly ratified the government's plans for the province. Reform
has long been a matter of political debate, but many types of reform were
designed as much to circumvent as augment the parliamentary system in the
province. Political leaders at various times sought to end party government,
institute the voter recall and hand over management of government operations to
non-partisan boards of "experts" insulated from political criticism.
In his classic study of Alberta politics, C.B. Macpherson argued that the
United Farmers of Alberta advanced a critique of the party system "that
carried with it the rejection of parliamentary government."1
Alberta Progressives elected to federal office promoted their non-partisan
ideas in Ottawa.
Several factors explain the recent
rise of the parliamentary reform agenda in Alberta.2
Populism: Alberta's political culture contains a
strong element of distrust of organized power, especially in its partisan,
governmental form. Populists consider parties to be elitist clubs whose
interests diverge from those of the people. This sentiment has overlapped with
and inflamed western alienation another potent political force in Alberta
because of the origins of the mainline parties in eastern Canada, their
association with the entrenched central Canadian elites, and their domination
of the federal political process. Populism thus is related to non-partisanship,
which, historically, has implied an emphasis on leadership transcending class,
regional, and political cleavages in society. This dimension of populism has
proven remarkably well-suited to the role of Alberta Premiers as spokespersons
for the province against federal incursions into provincial jurisdiction.
Populism has fuelled calls for
direct democracy measures which would give decision making power to the people
and accordingly keep politicians and parties under strict popular control.
Underlying populism is the belief that the people are right, that issues are
not as complex as they are made out to be, and that better political results
are produced with more direct democratic political processes.
Recently, populism has fostered a
"let's clean house" mentality among the electorate whereby
politicians are thought to be riding too high in their saddles and must be
stripped of their perquisites and privileges in order to sharpen their focus on
the public interest. Thus we hear calls for reducing or eliminating MLA
pensions, reducing expense allowances, and even tying MLA salaries to budget
deficit reduction efforts.
The Alberta Political Economy:Alberta's resource based economy, though
chronically unstable, has enjoyed enviable prosperity in the latter half of the
twentieth century. In the halcyon days of the 1970s abundant provincial
revenues were collected while personal income tax rates were the lowest in the
country and a provincial sales tax was never levied. The main political
preoccupation was with securing provincial jurisdiction over the regulation and
taxation of energy. Albertans were content to support their Premier's battles
with the federal government over these issues.
Several important consequences
flowed from this state of affairs. First, the executive branch was in almost
complete control. A weak legislative opposition was frequently belittled for
daring to criticize the provincial government's efforts against the
"central government". Managing the province was a technocratic matter
of secret policy formulation and easy implementation through a burgeoning
public service. Deference to the government meant an anaemic legislature.
Second, unprecedented prosperity allowed the government to spend large sums of
money without having to consider the central, difficult distributive questions
of politics: who gets how much of what, and when? The government had the luxury
of planning the budget in four year cycles.3 Third, Alberta politics
were devoid of sustained demands for political accountability. As three scholars
have suggested, "Alberta's tradition of one-party dominance,
'businesslike' government, and weak legislative opposition has won it the
reputation as a province where political accountability is particularly
weak."4 Commenting on Alberta's weak legislature, Frederick
Engelmann writes: "No doubt the basic handicap for accountability in
Alberta is that no one, including the people, seems to be used to it."5
Times changed rapidly and
dramatically. The province has, since 1986, run annual deficits. In 1992 it
became a net debtor province. This condition has been all the more embittering
to Albertans because of a series of bad provincial loans, guarantees, and
bailouts to Alberta companies. Energy revenues are no longer diverted into the
Heritage Savings Trust Fund and the Fund's investment income is being funnelled
into general revenues. Aside from some unique features in its tax regime, its
continuing reliance upon energy revenues, and the need to maintain an extensive
infrastructure built up during the boom years, Alberta's financial situation
has in overall terms become like that of the other provinces. Its annual
deficits are now in the $2-3 billion range.
Alberta's financial situation has
in overall terms become like that of the other provinces. Its annual budget
deficits are now in the $2-3 billion range.
The new Alberta economic condition
has several consequences. First, "the politics of taxation will be a much
more important part of Alberta's political future." And taxation is one of
the toughest distributive issues facing the government. In Alberta the
political challenge is to increase citizens' payments to the province without
labelling these payments taxes. Second, the province's mounting public debt has
been a humbling realization that Alberta is becoming a province more like the
others in its political and economic problems. The government's main task now
is to reduce public spending. Such a task compels it to make hard choices among
programs, public services, public employees in short, who will bear the brunt
of the new austerity. The government's whole role in the economy is being
scrutinized. Loans and grants to business and the status of quasi-public
corporations are no longer the quiet affairs of the days of freely flowing
revenues. The result is a call for greater accountability from the government
and should lead to a more lively Legislature increasingly aware of its watchdog
The New Politics: Scholars have argued that post-industrial
society is the setting for a new political culture of highly educated citizens
possessing post-materialist values (emphasizing quality of life concerns rather
than simple material gain) and imposing high expectations on the political
system. The gap in political skills between the public and political elites is
decreasing and post-materialists are not deferential to political elites and
institutions but rather supportive of unconventional modes of political
participation direct action politics.6
The new politics have come to
Alberta. The province has become highly urbanized, with over half the
population living in Calgary and Edmonton and almost 80% of the province's
residents living in urban centres overall. According to a recent study Alberta
has "the most highly educated labour force in Canada."7
In the 1980s the province witnessed
the birth of a broadly based, articulate environmental movement mobilized by
global concerns but also by the province's rush into forestry and the damming
of rivers. Activists have demanded more open, participatory public policy
processes including comprehensive environmental assessments on economic
developments. Now the quality of democratic life in the province is being
Environmentalists have not been
alone. "Gender is now on the political agenda."8 And
native issues, dovetailing with environmental activism and emergent
ethno-cultural concerns, provide another force outside of the traditional
Alberta political orbit. The new politics challenge the managerial, secretive,
executive-dominated approach and places a host of new political issues on the
agenda. In this sense the province's political environment in the 1990s has
significantly "opened up".
Citizen Involvement: At the same time as Alberta's political
economy and political culture were in flux, other specific events focused
people's attention on the excesses of executive dominance and the need for
popular political participation. The hallmark event was of course the Meech
Lake Accord. Secretive deals concocted by First Ministers and presented to the
public as 'done deals' were henceforth out of the question. For the purposes of
this article the most notable aspect was that Alberta public anger was aimed as
much at the Alberta government as it was against the other players and the
process itself. Combined with the backlash against the GST, Meech told
Albertans that the system needed change.
But Meech Lake was not all. After
its demise, the Spicer Commission became a lightning rod for demands that
citizens have more influence in the process. Governments responded with
consultative committees and a plethora of provincial and non-governmental study
groups on constitutional change. It would be death by consultation. The 1992
referendum which killed the Charlottetown Accord was indeed the quintessential
demand for citizen involvement. Significantly, Alberta was one of the first
provinces to pass legislation requiring the government to submit constitutional
proposals to the electorate in a referendum that would be treated by the
government as binding.
Alberta had begun to change its
ways: it created a constitutional committee to solicit public opinions before
the government's position was drafted. The Committee's report, Alberta in a
New Canada: Visions of Unity, was released in March 1992. Witnesses before the
Committee advanced myriad ideas for parliamentary reform, ranging from the
relaxation of party discipline to fixed terms of government and more direct
democracy measures. Many of these ideas were directed to the provincial
government for implementation. The Committee made no formal recommendations
regarding these measures but instead called for the creation of a committee of
the Legislative Assembly to study the implementation of these measures
"within the context of our parliamentary system of government."
The Alberta Legislature's Select
Special Committee on Parliamentary Reform was created to examine such issues as
free votes in the Legislative Assembly, more opportunities for Albertans'
direct involvement in the legislative process, election of the Speaker,
"whistleblowers'" protection, and access to information.
The Committee quickly ran into
problems. First, it committed to spend money on advertising before the money
was granted it by the Legislative Assembly a rather ironic disregard for
Parliament not lost on other MLAs. 9 Second, after it had called for
and received briefs it was dissolved with the Legislature this spring for the
provincial election. The jury is out on whether anything will come of this
Committee's work. Curiously, reforms have recently been implemented but these
have little to do with the work of the Committee.
Types of Parliamentary Reform
Some demands for change are largely
symbolic, although politically very powerful. Other types of reform have to do
with how parties run their affairs and how they structure cabinet and caucus. A
third category contains those reforms which would fundamentally alter the
accountability links within, and the structure of, the Legislative Assembly
Populist Reform: Here the emphasis is on popular control of
politicians, direct democracy measures, and the stripping away of perquisites.
High on the list of populist reforms is the voter recall, a means by which
constituents can force the resignation of MLAs between elections. This was
briefly tried in Alberta in the 1930s (and repealed by Premier Aberhart when
recall procedures were initiated against him by his constituents) and is still
popular in the West. Voters in neighbouring British Columbia overwhelmingly
approved of it in a 1991 referendum coinciding with the provincial election.
The Alberta-based Reform Party puts the recall in its blue book. The Alberta
Liberals put the recall in their election platform this last spring. Reform
demands also include the reduction of pensions, travel privileges, and hefty
accommodation allowances for MLAs living outside of Edmonton. According to
recently passed legislation, newly elected Alberta MLAs will have no pensions
after retiring from elected office.
The primary virtue of populist
reforms is that they are easy to grasp, visible, and symbolic; they have high
public relations value. Callers to phone in programs routinely suggest slashing
MLA salaries as a means of reducing the deficit, unaware that MLA salaries are
a minuscule fraction of government spending. Nonetheless the calls are made and
politicians are forced to respond. Symbols are important in politics but the
real consequences of symbolic change may either be marginal or contrary to
intentions. For instance, tying salaries to deficit reductions may lead to
thoughtless cost-cutting or more creative accounting, making public finance
even more difficult to comprehend.
Partisan reform: Because political parties are so
intimately tied to parliamentary government and are becoming quasi-public organizations
as government regulation of their activities increases, reforms to party
operations can be considered a species of parliamentary reform. Examples of
partisan reform are party candidate and leadership selection procedures,
cabinet structures and sizes, and caucus structures.
Alberta has been known for its very
large cabinets (30+ in the Lougheed and Getty eras) and an elaborate caucus
committee system designed to obviate the need for all-party standing policy
committees of the Legislative Assembly.10 This scheme has meshed
nicely with the executive domination of policy and legislative processes. Yet
it is precisely this executive domination that has so inflamed citizens in the
In a bold move to revitalize the
party and forge a new link between leader and people, the PCs resorted to an
extra-parliamentary mechanism to democratize Conservative party politics. The
key reform has been the new leadership selection process used in November 1992
to elect Ralph Klein to replace the retiring Don Getty. Faced with the need to
do something drastic to revive membership rolls and public interest in the PCs,
the party adopted a new process incorporating the runoff mechanism of normal
leadership conventions and extending voting privileges to all party members
throughout the province. The first ballot occurred on November 28, 1992. Party
members chose from among seven candidates. After the first ballot the bottom
four candidates were dropped and the third place candidate withdrew from the
second ballot. One week later, party members again voted at polls in their
constituencies to select the leader.
The process was opened up
substantially. Candidates were allowed to buy thousands of memberships and give
them away to supporters. Instant Tories could vote directly for the new
Premier. The candidates' campaigns were province-wide; forums, speeches, and
interviews took place in schools, community centres, TV studios, and
universities. The whole campaign had the feel of a presidential primary except
that this was a wholly PC event. Many people were confused by the innovation,
wondering why it would cost $5 to vote this time. Others were attracted to the
thought of a `direct election' of a new Premier.
After his leadership victory,
Premier Klein announced a smaller cabinet down to 17, from 32 in 1989 and
cut the number of cabinet and caucus committees from 26 to 6. To address
criticisms of cabinet domination of the policy process, backbench MLAs were
made chairmen of the four standing policy committees of the government.
Structural reform:Here is the classic type of parliamentary
reform: changes to the way the Legislature operates to make government more
Parliament-centred. The objective of structural reform is to make parliament a
primary forum for public debate, policy making, and political accountability.
The implication is that executive domination will be tempered,
extra-parliamentary means of consultation and policy formation will have a
parliamentary counterbalance, and public spending will be monitored more
Examples of structural reform
include all-party standing policy committees of the Legislative Assembly,
common in most jurisdictions in Canada but absent in Alberta. Other examples
are measures to improve the budgetary accountability of government: a more
powerful public accounts committee, a more streamlined process for reviewing
estimates, a heightened role for the Auditor General, and checks on the abuse
of special warrants. Some sources of revenue like lottery ticket sales currently
are not directed to general revenues. Proposals for reform seek to channel all
government revenues through the normal budgetary process. But it should be
noted that the Klein government created an extra-parliamentary body, the
Alberta Financial Review Commission, comprised of prominent businesspersons,
lawyers, and accountants, to report directly "to Albertans" on
Alberta's financial condition. Some of the Commission's recommendations have
been implemented in this year's budget process.
The government has initiated the
election of the Speaker (a first for the province) and seems prepared to act on
calls for effective access to information legislation. The last Speaker was
criticized for bending the rules of the House in favour of cabinet ministers,
for example by giving an expansive interpretation to the sub judice rule in
Question Period. Opposition parties and the media have for years been
frustrated by their virtual inability to get information out of the government.
A key reform is the relaxation of
party discipline, an idea linked in Albertans' minds to the delegate model of
representation whereby MLAs are thought to be accountable primarily to the
constituents who elect them and only secondarily to their parties. Specific
proposals include a tighter definition of what constitutes a confidence vote,
calls for more free votes, adoption of the British `three-line' voting system,
and/or requiring a confidence vote immediately after the government is defeated
on a measure.
Relaxation of party discipline does
not fit clearly within the structural reform category since it is so closely
related to the operations and status of parties. The relaxation of party
discipline carries a great deal of symbolic freight, likening it to populist
reform. But the symbolism is not all favourable to the implementation of this
reform. Some perceive it as empowering constituents. Others think the spectacle
of MLAs voting against their parties creates the perception that parties are
weak, without direction, and unable to marshal the support of their caucuses.
Media quickly exploit this interpretation of free voting. Nonetheless, because
the relaxation of party discipline has the potential of reining in executive
domination and increasing importance of parliamentary debate, it can be
considered a structural reform.
Immediately after the June 15
election, Premier Klein told reporters that caucus solidarity would be insisted
upon in his government. The prospects for reform looked bleak until the Premier
sought the Liberals' agreement to change the Standing Orders to reduce the
number of sitting days each week from five to four (though increasing the
number of hours of sitting time per week). One of the conditions set by the
Liberals was a commitment to more free votes.
In August the parties agreed in
writing that all private members' bills would be put to a vote instead of being
'talked out' as has been the practice; and on these votes MLAs would be free of
the whips. To date there have been a few free votes on such bills and MLAs have
voted across party lines. One Liberal bill to institute the voter recall failed
but was supported by several Tory MLAs including a cabinet minister. Another
Tory private member's bill has passed second reading debate and is expected to
Parenthetically, an important
structural reform just below the surface of political debate involves the
electoral system. Provincial politics has for many decades been affected by the
urban-rural split. The cities are the centres of economic and demographic
strength, yet rural Alberta has been a key determinant of both electoral change
and continuity, supporting the Social Credit government for decades and then
realigning, if belatedly, behind the Conservatives in the 1970s. The government
has attempted to exploit this by assigning the urban areas fewer seats than
their populations warrant, arguing with some justification that rural MLAs have
more constituency-based duties and time commitments than their urban
Yet such tactics no longer escape
notice. A non-partisan electoral boundaries commission refused to draw maps
based on skewed seat distributions contained in the government's legislation.
When a committee of the legislature was created to draw the maps, opposition
members boycotted, leaving the drawing of boundaries for the June 15, 1992
election to Tory MLAs. While it cannot be said that the boundaries produced the
Tory victory in June, the issue is far from dead. The Alberta Court of Appeal
is considering the province's boundaries in a reference case and could find
them contrary to the guarantee of effective representation enunciated by the
Supreme Court of Canada in 1991.
The three types of parliamentary
reform have different political payoffs and different chances of implementation.
Populist and some partisan reforms are attractive because they have high public
relations benefits that can be realized quickly. Any reform which cuts into
government power and control has been and will be resisted; thus structural
changes, with the exception of more modest examples like election of the
Speaker and access to information legislation, do not enjoy government party
support. Structural reforms are also less visible and more complex matters
whose benefits are noticeable only over the longer term i.e. they have little
public relations value. Yet in terms of political accountability and the
vitality of parliamentary government, they are the most important. Herein lies
a central paradox of parliamentary reform.
The Prospects for Parliamentary
Reform in Alberta
Parliamentary reform ultimately
hinges on how elected politicians react to the interplay of deeper forces and
immediate pressures. Under Don Getty the ruling PCs faced political oblivion.
The government in the late 1980s had become awkward and aloof, operating in a
new socio-economic environment with assumptions from the booming 1970s.12
With the New Democrats in disarray, the Liberals posed as heirs apparent. They
attacked government largesse and presented proposals for attacking the deficit
and cleaning up government. Going into the election campaign the Liberals
released detailed proposals for parliamentary reform, signalling, they said, a
"new approach" to government. "The very system of government in
Alberta must be radically changed if the issues that confront us are ever to be
resolved."13 According to the Liberals, Alberta's problems had
much to do with excessive partisanship. Their proposals would
"de-partisanize the political process." Under their stewardship,
"the Legislature will be de-politicized". Their proposals borrowed
from all three types of parliamentary reform discussed above: from voter recall
and relaxation of party discipline to standing policy committees of the
Legislative Assembly and heightened legislative control of the budget process.
While these proposals received some
attention, they did not dominate the election campaign. The Liberals became the
official opposition with 32 seats to the Tories' 51, forming the largest
opposition in the province's history, but this was short of their goal of
electoral victory. The New Democrats were completely shut out of the
Legislature, despite their seemingly inexorable growth over the past decade.
The "K-factor" Mr. Klein's popularity is widely acknowledged to
have been the key to the PCs' success. Such is the power of personality in
There are reasons for thinking
parliamentary reform and an enlivened Legislature may come to Alberta. The
Liberals were committed to significant reform during the election campaign and
now form a strong opposition caucus. As an opposition party, the Liberals have
every reason to propose structural reforms that would increase the
accountability of the government. Having won an agreement on free votes for
private members' bills, the Liberals can be expected to push for standing
policy committees and a more open budgeting process. In this latter quest the
Liberals are supported by years of Auditor General's reports and the recent
report of the Alberta Financial Review Commission.
One of the tools of executive
domination and party discipline is the control of patronage. The more patronage
the government has at its disposal the more control it can wield over
backbenchers. In this respect the downsizing of the cabinet is significant.
Fewer cabinet positions will be available to award the loyalties of compliant
backbench MLAs. If the rewards for compliance are reduced, then the likelihood
of non-compliance are increased, by however small a degree. (While
government/cabinet committees were reduced in number in January 1993 as part of
Premier Klein's new approach to government, membership on each has increased,
thereby preserving approximately the same number of positions available for
MLAs as before.) Some backbench government MLAs have already acquired
reputations for feistiness and independent thinking.
The recent decline in the salience
of executive federalism will decrease the prominence of the Alberta executive.
Constitutional politics are at least temporarily taboo and the Premier has been
decidedly cool toward that perennial Alberta favourite Senate reform. He
spent only a couple of minutes, he said, raising the issue with the Prime
Minister at the July 1993 First Ministers' Conference. And hardly a peep was
heard when Alberta Tory Ron Ghitter was appointed (not 'elected', as was Stan
Waters in 1989) to the Senate by Brian Mulroney.
The focus is clearly on problems
for which the government cannot blame some external demon. These problems are
redistributive in nature and overlap with the issues of the "new
politics" of environmentalism, aboriginal issues, women's rights, and
homosexual rights. This new agenda signals a more participatory political
culture, adds to the complexity of government, and makes a managerial approach
to government more untenable. There already are pressures to 'open up' the
political process, and one way this can happen is through parliamentary reform.
The government itself has started
the parliamentary reform process by appointing the Select Special Committee on
Parliamentary Reform. While the Committee was dissolved in the spring of 1993,
its work was widely publicized and it had already received many briefs and
letters from individual Albertans, groups, and institutions. The government has
promised to revive the Committee.
Finally, the public temper has
turned against politicians and the political process. This cranky mood is a
product of both the prolonged recession and the high expectations associated
with the new politics. People are concerned not simply with what politicians do
but how they do it. They are interested in the shape and openness of
institutions, the conditions under which politicians work almost universally
regarded as too lavish and are frustrated with the games of partisanship, which
they see as opposed to the tackling of real problems.
There are, however, many reasons
why talk of structural parliamentary reform in Alberta may be so much bluster.
While the public temper is in favour of change, it is unfocused and in many
cases unsophisticated. Six months before the election pundits and academics
alike were writing the political obituary of the Alberta Tories, proclaiming
the "law of the threes" whereby each political party in Alberta is
allowed only three leaders, the last one being a caretaker to guide the party
into oblivion in the election after taking over the leadership. Voters can be
Knowledge of parliamentary
government is often rudimentary and reform proposals are not well thought out.
Voter recall is almost a mantra in Alberta yet no one discusses how it could be
misused by interest groups and political opponents. Some favour direct election
of the Premier, apparently unaware of how utterly inconsistent this is with the
parliamentary form of government. Albertans, like Canadians generally, are
prone to selecting aspects of the American Presidential model for incorporation
into Canadian parliamentary government without appreciating the threats to
institutional coherence such patch jobs may produce. Most people are in favour
of scaling back the benefits of elected office but do not consider the
consequences: public life would be unattractive to persons of high calibre, MLA
turnover rates could increase beyond what are already high levels, and
consequently the chamber could become even more anaemic.
Now that Alberta has a two-party
system, both parties will feel the pressure to present themselves as strong,
determined, and united in the face of the other. MLA independence is
appreciated in the abstract but derided as party weakness and lack of direction
in reality. The media foster this impression. Reforms augmenting the
independence of backbenchers are likely to be resisted. The collectivist
element in Canadian political culture leads citizens to expect governments to
act for the public good.
Canadians do not take lightly the
intense logrolling characteristic of American pluralism. A collectivist,
policy-oriented dimension of Canadian political culture also infuses the
Albertan political psyche.
While a strong opposition is
certain to elevate the status of the Assembly, it could equally increase the
degree of partisanship in Alberta politics. In the area where legislative
control is most needed public spending and budget process the opposition
party will be tempted to exploit issues for purely partisan reasons. Thus a
flexible, dynamic provincial parliament could harden into a rigid partisan
arena, the opposite of Liberal promises in their parliamentary reform papers.
This would perpetuate the history of both the Alberta Legislature and those of
the other provinces.
The new political agenda of
restraint and deficit-cutting will run headlong into Alberta's increasingly
participatory political culture, producing conflict between the government and
affected interest groups. Early in its term of office the government may
benefit from "standing up" to the interest groups but will feel the
pressure over time to keep difficult and conflict-ridden cost-cutting
negotiations out of the public spotlight. This will lead the government to
negotiate behind closed doors and present agreements to the legislature to
ratify as faits accomplis. Hence the restraint agenda may produce executive
domination and a quiescent legislative assembly as much as province-building
did in the 1970s and 1980s.
The possibility of the government
implementing the restraint agenda behind closed doors is made more likely when
the parties' skewed representation is considered. The Tories were supported by
most areas of the province but do not speak for many non-territorial interest
groups normally aligned with the New Democrats. Nor do they have the support of
Edmontonians, many of whom are government employees. Organized labour and the
non-territorial groups defined by gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation
have no legislative voice. The government will therefore have to deal with
these groups directly, outside the Legislature. Much depends on whether the
Liberals will shift to the left and garner the support of these groups. The
government has already convened education and health care roundtable
consultations to discuss with stakeholders how to trim millions from the
province's budget. Aside from concerns about the government's sincerity in
seeking input from interest groups and the public, the effect of this is to
diminish the visibility and importance of the Legislative Assembly as the arena
for debating matters of the day.
Perhaps one should not be too quick
to dismiss the federal-provincial dimension of Alberta politics. While Premier
Klein appears uninterested in constitutional issues like Senate reform, some
political hay can be made of federal-provincial fiscal issues like equalization
which, though complicated and hard to package for public consumption, can
become salient in the future as both levels of government struggle to control
deficits. One school of thought depicts Alberta as the rich province
subsidizing the rest of the country through equalization payments. Furthermore,
Premier Klein has assumed the Cabinet portfolio of Federal and Intergovernmental
Affairs, preparing himself perhaps for some future federal-provincial wrangling
or a constitutional crisis.
The impetus for a stronger role for
backbenchers must rest with backbenchers themselves; executive power will not
easily be relinquished. Backbenchers must take power from the executive, and
can do so when they are not dependent upon the executive for their political
lives. If MLAs as representatives have the support of their constituents they
know they will be re-elected regardless of their status with the political
executive. This is not the case in Alberta. Almost half of the government MLAs
are rookies who attribute much of their own electoral success to the popularity
of Ralph Klein. This creates a relationship between backbencher and executive
which is unlikely to foster MLA independence. Further, a smaller cabinet can
simply give more power to senior pubic servants. One suspects the few feisty
Tory MLAs will not be allowed to become too critical of their party.
Finally, the government does not
seem particularly interested in parliamentary reform. The PCs have shown some
interest in reforms like access to information legislation and election of the
Speaker. They have agreed to more free votes and implemented changes in public
accounting practices that give a more honest picture of the government's
financial position. On the other hand, it could be argued that the appointment
of the Select Special Committee on Parliamentary Reform was an obligation held
over from the post-Meech constitutional debate. In addition, old political
habits die hard. The latest budget was delivered five months after the
beginning of the fiscal year, after hundreds of millions of dollars in special
warrants were approved by cabinet. When the government caucus recently voted to
cancel construction of a new $10 million hospital in light of severe health
care cutbacks, MLAs were quickly reconvened to reconsider their decision. They
did. These `business as usual' Alberta tactics have been a disappointment to
those hoping for a change in the style of government.
New social, political, and economic
forces are producing something of a malaise everywhere in Canada. Parliaments
are increasingly unable to generate public policy and hold governments to
account. Other governmental and non-governmental actors are supplanting
Parliaments as agents of policy and accountability. Parliaments are also
affected by the crisis in representation. What is an elected member of a
legislature exactly to do? And who or what exactly does he or she represent?
Some jurisdictions are seeking to
restore or recover a tradition of effective parliamentarism, to adapt it to new
challenges. In this respect Alberta is different, for there is precious little
parliamentarism to recover. Alberta's tradition at best can be described as an
immature parliamentarism. Graham White offers a two-fold classification of
legislatures: transformational assemblies which are law-making institutions and
independent of the executive; and arena-like chambers which are forums for the
clash of issues and the representation of interests but which have only a
law-passing role under the influence of the executive.14 The Alberta
chamber falls into neither category. So the current challenge is greater:
Alberta has to create a parliamentary tradition and simultaneously adapt it to
new forces. The depth of the challenge is indicated by the current confusion
about the kinds of parliamentary reforms that should be pursued. The current
debate lacks coherence and focus.
Alberta brings into sharp relief
many of the maladies of parliamentary systems elsewhere. It reveals starkly the
difficulties of serious, structural parliamentary reform. It illustrates in a
complex way the uneasy marriage between old-extra-parliamentary reform
pressures and the new, interest group led political forces. It shows how
persistent historical themes, in Alberta's case the myth of the non-partisan
leader, tangle with new issues and contexts to complicate debate and alter the
course of the parliamentary reform agenda.
While some reforms will be
implemented, many of these will simply bring Alberta into line with other
provinces. The discussion of parliamentary reform comes at a time of fiscal
uncertainty and will continue to be part of the partisan jockeying for power.
As well, the shape of Canadian federalism is changing and representative
institutions as such suffer from a decline in legitimacy. Attempts at
parliamentary reform in Alberta are, like Alberta's politics in general, full
of paradoxes: rhetoric and reality frequently travel down different roads. If
they converge, Alberta's Legislature would be a new locus of political activity
in the province.
1. C. B. Macpherson, Democracy
in Alberta, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) p. 55.
2. See A. Tupper and R. Gibbins,
eds., Government and Politics in Alberta, (Edmonton: University of
Alberta Press, 1992).
3. Allan Tupper and G. Bruce Doern,
"Alberta Budgeting in the Lougheed Era", in Allan M. Maslove, ed., Budgeting
in the Provinces: Leadership and the Provinces (Toronto: Institute of
Public Administration of Canada, 1989) pp. 121-141.
4. Tupper, Pratt, and Urquhart, in
Tupper and Gibbins, op. cit. eds., p. 58.
5. Engelmann, in Tupper and
Gibbins, op. cit. eds., p. 155.
6. For the Canadian application see
Neil Nevitte, Herman Bakvis and Roger Gibbins, "The Ideological Contours
of the `New Politics' in Canada: Policy, Mobilization, and Partisan
Support" Canadian Journal of Political Science XXII:3 (September
1989) pp. 475-504.
7. Robert Mansell and Michael
Percy, Strength in Adversity: A Study of Alberta's Economy, (Edmonton:
University of Alberta Press, 1990) p. 57.
8. Linda Trimble, "The
Politics of Gender" in Tupper and Gibbins, eds., p. 240.
9. See the proceedings of the
Standing Committee on Members' Services, Alberta Legislative Assembly, April 7
and 8, 1993, pp. 111-116, 133-136, Transcript 22-4-9.
10. See Peter McCormick,
"Politics After the Landslide: The Progressive Conservative Caucus in
Alberta", Parliamentary Government IV:1 (1983) pp. 8-10.
11. But this argument cannot be
taken too far. As the Alberta Court of Appeal suggested such a situation is an
argument for increasing the size of the Legislative Assembly, not for
privileging rural voters. See Re Electoral Boundaries Commission Act (Alberta)  1 W.W.R. 481 at 491 (A.C.A.).
12. Allan Tupper, "Alberta
Politics: The Collapse of Consensus" in Hugh Thorburn, ed., Party
Politics in Canada 6th edition (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1991) pp.
13. Alberta Liberal Party,
"Alberta's Biggest Problem: The System Itself" (April, 1993) p. 1.
14. G. White, The Ontario
Legislature: A Political Analysis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1989) p. 10.