Alberta’s United Conservative Party plans to pursue a raft of policies related to the government’s flagship sovereignty legislation, despite staying mum on the controversial topics during the spring election, according to Premier Danielle Smith’s mandate letters to cabinet.
Ms. Smith, as of Friday, had released letters of instruction to 13 of 24 ministers, including those in charge of portfolios tightly tied to the economy. Taken together, the letters indicate Ms. Smith’s desire to seek further autonomy from Ottawa, a key facet of her political personality.
The Premier’s push for greater autonomy and regulatory supremacy over Ottawa is popular with the UCP’s base, but moderate conservatives and progressives view the sovereignty act and related policy proposals with skepticism at best and hostility at worst.
Ms. Smith introduced the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act in late November and her party amended it days later. It aims to empower Alberta to ignore federal policies that MLAs believe infringe on provincial jurisdiction. The mandate letters instruct ministers to explore complementary policies, such as an Alberta pension plan and Alberta revenue agency, even though Ms. Smith skirted such topics in the provincial election in May.
Martin Olszynski, a law professor at the University of Calgary who has questioned the constitutionality of Ms. Smith’s push for greater sovereignty, said the letters reflect the government’s “democratic deficit.” He does not feel the UCP leadership contest gave her a mandate to pass the sovereignty act. Ms. Smith eschewed campaigning on issues such as a provincial pension plan, even when pressed by the New Democrats, during the provincial election.
“Now she’s bringing them back,” Mr. Olszynski said.
Ms. Smith, in a letter dated July 13, instructed Finance Minister Nate Horner to release the Alberta pension plan report and consult with residents on its findings to “determine whether a referendum should be held to establish an Alberta Pension Plan that will increase pension benefits for seniors, reduce premiums for workers and protect the pension interests and benefits of all Albertans.”
She also asked the minister to explore the “feasibility and advantages of establishing an Alberta Revenue Agency to collect all provincial tax revenues, and developing a detailed strategy for its implementation should our government choose to pursue it.”
For strategists who decry Canada’s equalization program, a provincial pension plan and tax agency are key to ending what they view as the national system’s unfair burden on Alberta. The proposals were part of the Free Alberta Strategy, a document co-authored in 2021 by one of Ms. Smith’s top staff members that served as the template for the sovereignty act. Some of the policies also reflect the themes cited by the UCP’s Fair Deal panel.
Ms. Smith’s spokesperson, Sam Blackett, said the letters reflect the UCP’s priorities. “Albertans elected this UCP government on a mandate to keep taxes low, keep life affordable, keep our streets safe and stand up to Ottawa when they attack our economy,” he said.
He also rejected the suggestion Ms. Smith was not upfront with voters. He said the Premier has, for months, said Albertans will get to see the pension plan report, and if there is enough interest, the government will hold a referendum on the policy.
The Premier’s letter also requested Mr. Horner review ATB Financial’s mandate and recommend how the institution “can become more competitive in financing Alberta businesses and homebuyers, and making other recommendations to strengthen the institution’s financial position to ensure it remains viable and contributes to Alberta’s unique provincial economy in the long term.”
Ms. Smith directed Devin Dreeshen, the Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors, to expand “economic corridors” – the Premier’s jargon for infrastructure such as highways, pipelines, railways and power transmission systems – across the province and Canada to increase economic growth and non-renewable resource revenue for Albertans.
“This should include working to secure corridor agreements with provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners to Hudson Bay, the Pacific and the Arctic,” the letter said.
The letters demand ministers push back against Ottawa’s plan to have a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, favouring Alberta’s 2050 aspiration instead. Sara Hastings-Simon, an expert on the energy transition and a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, noted that the letters to the ministers of Environment and Protected Areas, Energy and Minerals, and Affordability and Utilities address the need to expand energy sources beyond hydrocarbons, but there is a glaring absence.
“There’s a lot of types of energy that are mentioned by name, and renewable energy, in particular wind and solar, are completely absent.”
The initial batch of mandate letters also revived policies Ms. Smith had previously promoted but shied away from during the election, such as health care spending accounts and a program to encourage energy companies to clean up old wells.