Don’t you hate it when you sit down to write your signature piece of legislation and you accidentally give your cabinet the power to unilaterally rewrite laws, bypassing the legislative assembly? The other day I accidentally wrote down “2 p.m.” instead of “1 p.m.” for an upcoming appointment, so I have some sympathy for Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who must have had a similarly absent-minded moment when she forgot that she was supposed to be a libertarian and introduced Bill 1, the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, granting herself and her cabinet sweeping, undemocratic closed-door powers.
That’s why Ms. Smith was on cleanup duty late last week and into the weekend, as she attempted to clarify that her extremely serious, very well considered piece of legislation wasn’t supposed to give members of cabinet the powers it expressly gave them under Section 4 of her bill.
“We never intended for it to apply to statutes. Statutes do have to come back to the legislature for approval,” Ms. Smith said during a CBC News interview on Friday. On Saturday, she told listeners of a Corus radio show that changes would be coming. “There is some concern right now that [the bill] is written in a way that suggests that we would be able to unilaterally change statutes, and we’re not able to do that,” she said. “We’re working on making sure that that gets clarified.”
Indeed, I have been told that a fresh shipment of crayons was dispatched to the Premier’s office late Saturday evening, ensuring that Ms. Smith can make the clarifications she insisted as late as Thursday afternoon were totally unnecessary and merely a product of Opposition NDP “hysteria,” “fearmongering” and “fabrication.”
We’re still to supposed believe, then, that the Sovereignty Act remains a very serious piece of legislation and not simply a clumsy political document intended both to bait Ottawa and to seduce support from Albertans feeling aggrieved and unheard. This suspension of disbelief requires one to accept that the Premier has weighed the risk of driving investment from the province, as the Calgary Chamber of Commerce has warned, and considered the cost and likely outcome of the inevitable court challenges, and nevertheless still sees practical purpose in empowering the province to reject federal laws it deems “harmful” – which is not defined in the current version of the bill. Maybe Ms. Smith, who has backtracked so often in her short tenure as Premier she ought to wear tap shoes to the legislature, sees a tangible advantage we simple-minded mortals cannot? Or maybe it is the other screamingly obvious thing.
So far, Ottawa hasn’t taken the bait. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government “is not looking for a fight” over the proposed legislation, but added that he will not “take anything off the table.” That was enough for Ms. Smith to claim an unholy alliance between Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley and Mr. Trudeau, suggesting in the legislature the next day that if and when the Sovereignty Act passes, Ms. Notley will “call up her good friend Justin Trudeau and her federal party leader, Jagmeet Singh, to direct their coalition government to quash and override the laws of our land.”
It’s a good strategy for Ms. Smith, who knows that the perception of Ms. Notley selling out to the feds during her time as Premier helped to drive her out of office and the United Conservative Party into control of the province in 2019.
But even if the federal government remains disciplined in its relative aloofness toward Bill 1, the legislation serves a useful political purpose in giving anguished Albertans something to rally behind, just as former premier Jason Kenney provided with his multimillion dollar inquiry into foreign funding of so-called anti-Alberta energy propaganda. That inquiry was a flop, of course – it was mired in controversy and revealed next to nothing in the end – but it served its purpose as a campaign promise in 2019, which is perhaps all that can be expected of a poorly conceived populist lure that’s been dressed up to look like meaningful policy. Ms. Smith has adopted the same strategy as Mr. Kenney, but her version is dumber, less democratic and patently unconstitutional.
None of this is to suggest it won’t work. Indeed, Ms. Smith has already succeeded in getting former critics of the proposed act – including past UCP leadership rivals Brian Jean and Travis Toews – to turtle into their shells and cough up praise for the legislation. And when she’s finished with her promised revisions, the act could end up merely bizarre and unconstitutional, instead of bizarre, unconstitutional and outrageously undemocratic, as it is now. The sky’s the limit, really, when your chief concern is getting a rise out of the right people. And if you make a mistake – like, say, accidentally giving the province the power to imprison people who put solar panels on their roofs – just say that was never your intention, apologize and move on.