It has been a wild ride in Alberta politics over the last few years, a ride that seemed to get even wilder this month, especially after an all-party legislative committee voted Feb. 10 to add $546,000 to the Auditor-General's office. These committees are supposed to be independent of the government, but the next day Premier Jim Prentice announced at a press conference that he did not accept the committee's decision due to budget constraints. Sure enough, this past Tuesday, that same all-party committee reintroduced the motion and voted down the increase.
But this raw and very public exercise of the Premier's power was even more bizarre. Several of the Progressive Conservative MLAs decided to participate in the committee's deliberations via conference call rather than show up and face questions from the media. Even worse, the "all-party" committee did not contain any MLAs from the official Opposition Wildrose Party. This is because the two Wildrose members – Jeff Wilson and Gary Bickman – were part of the group that crossed the floor to join the PCs in December. Wildrose appealed to Speaker Gene Zwozdesky to add one of their MLAs to the committee, but Mr. Zwozdesky ruled that committee membership could only be changed when the legislature is in session, which doesn't occur until March 10.
So here is the state of Alberta democracy: Legislative committees, which are supposed to be independent of the executive branch, are not. When the Premier speaks, either before a vote or, as in this case, after a vote, government party MLAs listen. Opposition parties are allowed to have token representation on committees, unless their MLAs decide to join the government party, in which case they don't even have that. But the extent of the threat to Alberta democracy goes further than the manipulation of an MLA committee.
Mr. Prentice wanted the increase to the Auditor-General's office rescinded because the plummeting price of oil has created a $7-billion hole in Alberta's finances. In fact, in the same press conference, Mr. Prentice signalled that he would be seeking a 5-per-cent cut across all government departments. In real terms, taking into account population growth and inflation, this amounts to a cut of 9 per cent.
But that is exactly the problem with including the Auditor-General's office in the list of cuts. The Auditor-General is in charge of assessing government spending or, in this case, the cutting of spending. What is the most effective way of determining budget cuts across and within government departments? What is absolutely essential versus what is not? What is the best process? Where are the efficiencies to be found in a $40-billion budget? Reducing the Auditor-General's budget means that the government may not know how effective its cost-cutting has been. When the Klein government made its massive cuts in 1993, it was later found that the cuts were too deep, too fast, and too blunt. A properly resourced Auditor-General would help Mr. Prentice avoid that fate. Unless, of course, that is the point of the cut to the Auditor-General's budget; to ensure that an accurate record of the full effects of the upcoming budget cuts is not known. If there is no high quality and independent analysis of the government's budget-cutting, then opposition parties, interest groups, and the general public will be in the dark.
There is actually a very recent precedent for uncomfortable Auditor-General reports. Last August, it was Auditor-General Merwan Saher who revealed the full extent of former premier Alison Redford's mismanagement of government travel and renovations for a new premier's residence (the infamous "Fakes on a Plane" and "Skypalace" scandals). Mr. Saher was damning in his criticism of Ms. Redford and other cabinet ministers such as then-finance minister Doug Horner and others that remain in Mr. Prentice's Cabinet (Wayne Drysdale and Ric McIvor). Mr. Saher placed the blame for the spending scandals on the "aura of power around the Premier." Mr. Saher was referring to Ms. Redford, but a future auditor-general might be writing the same thing about Jim Prentice.
Duane Bratt is professor in the Department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University.