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BARNES: Albertans deserve the right to make the big decisions in referenda law

Guest column from Drew Barnes says that Alberta’s referendum law should be expanded to allow votes on big constitutional issues.

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Guest opinion column from Alberta MLA Drew Barnes

“I am and I will remain a populist, because those who listen to the people are doing their job.” Matteo Salvini.

At its core the word populism is the action that government policies should be determined by the will of the people, not the will of the elite. Direct democracy is the institutional populism in action.

There is debate over whether populism should be termed as a movement or an ideology. Since the actions of populist engagement can transcend the ideological spectrum, I believe it should be viewed as a movement, that can sometimes manifest itself ideologically. As a movement, populist participation can take place on all points of the spectrum. Ultimately, that is what is wanted from a democratic society – engagement from all points of the spectrum.

Now more than ever, we need a new grassroots-populist approach to politics. Grassroots politics by its nature suggests that it is a movement that is sparked from the bottom-up. Politicians who came from grassroots movements must never forget where they came from, or lose sight of what they came to do. We need more of the bottom-up approach to politics, and make listening to the people that elected us a priority.

This is taking place in some measure here in Alberta. Political party policy processes allow for constituency associations to generate policy proposals for conventions, where they are voted on by the membership. Every party in Alberta – with the exception of the NDP – uses a ‘one member, one vote’ system.

Another grassroots/populist tool is referenda, that when used the right way are a valuable democratic tool. Referendums however, must stay true to their purpose, and the process for bringing them forward must allow for citizens to craft their own – fair – wording on a question. This is not to say that any question – however subjectively worded – that anyone wants to ask should be put to a referendum. Therefore, the rules on the use of referendums must not be overly onerous, nor overly temperate.

Switzerland is a prime example of a country that takes full advantage of referendums, including citizens’ initiative. In their democratic system, referendums can occur up to four times annually. All citizens registered to vote can cast their ballot on issues affecting decisions within both their federal government and their cantons (autonomous provinces). Before each vote, all registered voters receive a package of booklets in the mail which provide details on the coming referendums. Since these referendums began in 1848, just under half of the referendum proposals have passed. Even if they don’t always pass, the process is crucial to starting conversations and keeping citizens involved in debate. Referendums also force political parties to reach beyond partisan lines to reach consensus.

Alberta’s legislature recently passed a bill that guides referendums on non-constitutional matters. While this is a positive step forward, there are issues in this bill that need improvement. 

For example, Albertans initiating a referendum might go through the process of collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures, only to have the cabinet alter the wording the question. While fair wording of the question is critical to the integrity of direct democracy, that issue is not best dealt with by politicians who may have a stake in the result. Instead, clear guidelines should be established in law on question wording, and left to non-partisan officials at Elections Alberta. 

And while the new referendum legislation is a big step forward over the status quo (that is, nothing), it deliberately bans citizens-initiated referendums on constitutional questions. This means that if Albertans wished to force a vote on adding property rights to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that they would not be allowed. Similarly, Albertans are barred from forcing a vote on reforming the Senate, equalization, or internal free trade. Ominously, Albertans have no right to force a vote over the heads of the legislature on independence or other forms of sovereignty. 

I believe that Albertans can be trusted with the right of citizens’ initiative on all questions, both constitutional and non-constitutional. 

We trust the people to elect a government to run our systems, so why can’t we trust them to bring their own questions forward? 

Drew Barnes is the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat

Opinion

DAVIS: After Trudeau’s throne speech, the West must fight back with more than words

“Shaking our fists, going to court, and promises of greater autonomy someday, are no longer enough.”

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It’s really no surprise that the Liberal throne Speech was more of the same rhetoric they’ve been regurgitating for the last five years. It’s really just more of the same tired march toward his idea of liberal-socialism: with gun grabs, censorship, and condescending emergency orders during the pandemic. 

If anything was surprising, it was his lacklustre reiteration of the throne speech with no added value to speak of. Sure, it was delivered in his same breathy tones, but for a guy who likes to ham it up, it was decidedly bland.  

What we saw in the throne speech and his remarks in the House the next day was an open disregard for the plight of the West and the growing tinderbox of alienation here. It’s hard to tell at this point if Justin Trudeau is just that blissfully unaware, or is being willfully ignorant.

As the pundits were busy reporting on a “Liberal re-set” that wasn’t – forgetting the scandals which made this entire farce necessary – the opposition and provinces weighed in on what they heard.

Conservatives won’t support the government. The NDP are being obtuse, and the Bloc leader Yves-Francois Blanchet sounded like an extortionist as he insisted that the government has one week to hand over more healthcare money, or else.  

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney sounded more like a spurned lover than a premier ready to go to the mat for his province. I say this not because of how he said things, but because of what he did and didn’t say.

Essentially, Kenney plans to stay his course of angry words and lawfare, suing the federal government over every breach of the constitution. This means uncertain outcomes, and years in court. Years Alberta doesn’t have.  

He spoke of implementing the findings of the Fair Deal Report, but hasn’t taken any concrete actions toward achieving those goals. Appointing the Alberta Firearms Officer is one of his “we’re going to do’s”, but when? He’s devoting $2 million to analysing the viability of a provincial police force instead of investing that money in recruitment and training facilities for the new force now. These uninspiring actions look like flinching under the pressure of a sovereigntist movement that keeps getting federal oxygen fanning the flames of discontent.

In fairness, the United Conservative government has done a good job during the pandemic. As much as some may cry foul at that assertation, the fact remains that we were able to send PPE to other provinces because of Alberta’s preparedness.  

I admire Jason Kenney for going to the airport to verify if reports of a lack of COVID testing were true; they were.  In response to this, he began more thorough checks at the Calgary airport, one of four airports still receiving international flights during the crisis.  

Kenney has also been actively seeking investment and diversification of the Alberta economy.  It should be a personal thorn in his side that immediately after the throne speech, much of his work was undone as investors are back to questioning if they can do business in Canada with the regulatory uncertainty restated by the Liberal government.

It was disappointing to hear Mr. Kenney say that he will continue on, bullishly complaining, going to court, and fighting a game that he cannot win. Time is of the essence and Albertans need him to come up with a plan B fast.  

Asserting provincial autonomy, removing ourselves from as many federal programs as possible is a necessary start regardless of if independence is the end-goal or not.  But independence must be put on the table as a last ditch option regardless of whether Mr. Kenney likes the idea or not. We face an existential threat – survival or disintegration under this federal government, bent on crushing everything Westerners hold dear or essential for survival.

We must begin a strategic plan, create a contingency blueprint, putting the pieces in place so that if it should come to it, Alberta is ready to go its own way. The province must be prepared and ready to implement those plans quickly.  

We could take the example of Quebec’s preparations in 1995, learning from their mistakes and successes. We should be speaking to indigenous leaders, forming alliances early in a fair and equitable fashion. International relationships for both trade and support ought to be pursued now.  

Shaking our fists, going to court, and promises of greater autonomy someday, are no longer enough. Tangible action is required and it’s required now. The United Conservative Party must face these facts and acknowledge that foundational steps are necessary to put Albertans on firmer ground and give us the leverage we need to say no to Ottawa the next time they come with matches and kerosene.  

Gilly Davis is a guest columnist for the Western Standard 

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Opinion

ANDRUS: Kenney prepares to fight “all-out war” from his knees

“A constitutional convention may be the only way to keep the country together. Without one, enflamed regional anger will continue to divide the country and the viability of remaining a single nation will continue to deteriorate.”

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“The only time in the Speech from the Throne that Saskatchewan was essentially mentioned was in the phase out of our energy industry workers.”  

That was Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s response to the massive shift in direction signaled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Throne Speech on Wednesday. His words rang true across the West and the fight for the heart of the energy industry has ramped up yet again.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney described the Throne Speech as a “full-frontal attack” on the constitution.

“There were more policies that invade provincial jurisdiction than I could count,” said Kenney. “Alberta will continue to work with our allies across the country to focus on lives and livelihoods.”

From the reaction of the premiers, it is now clear that national unity hangs in the balance.

The announcement of ambitious legislation guaranteed to be detrimental to the interests of Westerners, pits Moe and Kenney against the full might of a federal government targeting the heart of the energy industry.

The rhetoric both have displayed in recent days highlights the rage bubbling amongst their electorates, already concerned about their futures, but rhetoric is just that.

While both premiers have talked the talk, angry citizens await firm action. In Alberta, Kenney has slow walked his Fair Deal plan to a crawl. Two of his best options – a provincial pension plan and referendum to abolish equalization – have been delayed until next fall at the earliest. Constitutional challenges, while bold in rhetoric, will take years to unwind. Strong letters are just words on a page; empty threats unless backed up with strong action.

More than ever, the need for bold leadership is of vital importance. The constitution is under attack. Western alienation, scoffed at by the Laurentian establishment and Trudeau himself, is on the rise. Further delays will only see that anger redirected at provincial governments and Premiers that are seen to be waffling. Watering down messaging in a time when strong action is needed will further weaken the fabric of national unity.

The next few months will demonstrate clearly that constitutional reform is required to strengthen national unity and provide equal footing for provinces wary of federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction. The current constitutional order is designed to favour voter-heavy provinces, with no real defence available to smaller provinces.

A constitutional convention may be the only way to keep the country together. Without one, enflamed regional anger will continue to divide the country and the viability of remaining a single nation will continue to deteriorate.

These reforms are long past due. It’s time to recognize gravity of the situation and act. Words will simply fall on deaf ears.

Josh Andrus is a columnist with the Western Standard and the Executive Director of Project Confederation.

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Opinion

BYFIELD: An open letter to Jason Kenney

Vince Byfield writes that the UCP risks losing power if it does not let Albertans vote directly on its future.

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Editors Note: The following guest column is an open letter from Vince Byfield

Dear Premier Kenney,

A recent Alberta poll showed the NDP tied for support with your UCP at 38 per cent, and the remaining 24 per cent broken into a variety of smaller parties, several of them sovereigntist. It appears from this poll that your unification of the right is unravelling, with some Albertans now turning to independence, and some to socialism. 

The fault of this splintering of the right falls squarely on your shoulders, and your refusal to explore and explain to Albertans all of the political options available to them. 

Instead, your decision to schedule a non-binding referendum on equalization two-and-a-half years after your election just isn’t good enough. You’re moving too slowly, sir. You have to do more, and you have to do it now. That’s what you were elected to do, and with each passing week you are wasting your mandate. Your base is now abandoning you, and you risk re-electing the NDP. Your foot-dragging carries the very real risk of Alberta falling into a socialist oblivion from which it may never recover. 

All because you are not doing the right thing for Albertans. Clinging to a confederation that is so unbalanced, so unstable that it has to rob Albertans en masse to bribe Quebecers to stay in Canada is madness. And yet this, Premier Kenney, is precisely what you are perpetuating with your procrastination. Wasting precious time like this effectively buries our children and grandchildren with $200 million more crippling debt every single week. 
Enough is enough. This must to stop. By continuing to do nothing constructive to correct Alberta’s biggest grievance, conservative Albertans are left with no choice but to chart a future with someone who will.

As I see it, Albertans have three options: one, remain in confederation; two, become an independent nation; or three, become Americans. Yet of those three options you support the first, dismiss the second, and ignore the third. Why is that? Why do you appear to be going to great lengths to hide the third option from Albertans?

We have tried and failed with option one. We have been a part of confederation for 115 years. There are clear inequalities which we have endeavored earnestly for decades to repair. Time and time again, the rest of Canada has rejected us. Now they don’t even bother to respond. It’s clear to any Albertan with any semblance of common sense that further attempts to work within option one is futile and hopeless. Ottawa politicians are tired of listening to useless whining, and quite frankly, so are Albertans.

Option two is by no means the cure all. Becoming an independent nation of four million souls surrounds us with one nation ten-times our size (the rest of Canada, now angry at our departure) and the other a hundred-times our size (the United States, now self-sufficient in oil and protectionist). History shows us how large nations typically treat much smaller ones, and it is not pretty. Yet, in spite of this dismal future, many Albertans are now so mad about Canada that they see independence as their only recourse. They believe this because their leaders – like you – are not informing them of the third option. 

You promised transparency in your government, but then you choose to black out 134 pages – or 90 per cent – of the Fair Deal Panel’s documentation. The idea of conducting a public inquiry and then refusing to let the public see what it found is confusing a great many of your supporters. It is clear you are hiding something. What are you so desperately trying to keep away from Albertans? Why was the third option not even discussed? 

When Albertans carefully consider all three options – when the fog of anti-American rhetoric is given time to clear – becoming part of the United States stands out as the only really sensible solution.

Here is the roadmap to Alberta statehood as I understand it. First, we must hold a referendum on independence. The United States cannot recognize or negotiate with Alberta until we sever ties with Canada by having the majority of Albertans vote in favour of independence from Canada. This referendum essentially serves as a declaration of independence. 

The biggest benefit of a successful independence referendum is that it effectively serves notice to Ottawa that the equalization and other transfers are over. The Canadian government and its revenue agency would no longer have any standing on Alberta soil. Albertans will file their income taxes – all of their income taxes – with the new national Alberta government. Along with the end of equalization payments the begging to Ottawa will no longer be necessary.

Once we declare ourselves independent, Albertans are well advised to schedule a second referendum swiftly to determine how many Albertans would then want to become a part of the United States of America. If passed, Alberta would then formally apply to be admitted as a territory or protectorate of the United States.

This is not a new path. It has essentially been followed in the vast majority of cases since the first 13 colonies declared independence and formed the United States of America. Other than the original 13 Colonies, most states that joined the union were first unincorporated US territories. We would be following in the footsteps of what would later grow, prosper, and become powerful states in their own right, like California. 

Alternatively, Alberta could follow the path of Texas, which was admitted directly to full statehood quickly after declaring its independence from Mexico. 

Being a territory or protectorate of the United States is not the same as being a state. Statehood would be an option at a later time and would require a third referendum by Albertans. However, US territorial status gives Albertans at least three very important benefits right away.

First, instant US citizenship to every Albertan and the freedom to travel, work and trade anywhere in that great nation. Furthermore, Americans are free to travel and, more importantly, invest in Alberta. This means badly needed jobs will return. Business will be able to thrive. Albertans will be able to enjoy real freedom and real prosperity once more.

Second, immediate US military protection. When the most powerful nation on the planet vows to defend Alberta, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows that sending Canadian soldiers onto Alberta soil would be impossible. Therefore, US territorial status assures a peaceful resolution for Albertans whatever they decide to do next.

Third, freedom to leave the United States at a later date. Being a US territory – and not a state — means Albertans are not obligated to remain a part of the United States. Albertans would be given the freedom and time to heal and consider the future that is best for ourselves.   

As a US territory, we even have the freedom to return to Canadian confederation, should Albertans decide to forgive Ottawa and Quebec for their swindles of the past 115 years. 

Critically, Alberta would have the right to negotiate the terms of entering the American union. This contrasts with Alberta’s entry into confederation in 1905, which was unilaterally dictated by Ottawa without any negotiation or consultation.  

We may also decide to remain as a US territory. This gives us all the freedoms and benefits described above, but US territorial status does have one important price: no political representation in Congress. As a territory, we may not be able to elect Alberta senators or Albertans to the House of Representatives, but we will be able to vote for the next president. This means that Alberta’s liberals and socialists will be free to vote for the Democrats, and conservatives for the Republicans.

Most importantly, as a US territory – and no longer crippled by Quebec’s multi-billion-dollar ransom payments –  Albertans would be able to focus on what we do best: working hard and prospering. 

Premier Kenney, you still have time, but not much. I propose you schedule a referendum on our independence to be held no later than Alberta Day, August 3, 2021. If you do this, I predict that your base will return – their confidence in you restored – and the nightmarish possibility of another NDP Alberta reign of error banished to the realm of socialist dreams.

Failure to follow through on this proposal puts your supporters in a difficult situation. Failure to show real leadership for Albertans means we have little choice but to find a real leader with the guts to do the job. Are you that leader? I hope and pray your answer is yes, but am prepared to act if you are not.  

Please accord Albertans the courtesy of a response and your reasons. If those reasons are examined and found wanting, be assured that conservative Albertans will not sit idly by while you continue to wreck our province. We will act.

Jason, no one would regard your position as enviable. Your love of Canada is without question. We all love Canada. But when put to the test, when forced to choose between Canada and the calculated destruction of Alberta, the needs of Albertans must be your highest priority.

Sincerely,
Vince Byfield

Vincent Byfield is manager of SEARCH, publisher of the 12-volume history series “The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years” and other history books. Since 1973 Vince has worked with his father, Ted Byfield, to publish Alberta Report Newsmagazine and his brother, Link Byfield, who was elected in 2004 as an independent senator-in-waiting for Alberta.

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