Albertans could soon have the power to recall provincial legislators between elections under a proposed law that fulfills a campaign promise from Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party.
Mark Smith, the UCP backbencher who proposed the legislation, says his Election Recall Act would empower the electorate and keep legislators in line. The Opposition New Democrats warn that, without limits on third-party groups, the bill opens a backdoor in election financing rules, allowing corporations and unions to unleash a continuous political campaign in the province.
Alberta’s politics has a rich history of U.S.-style populism, which has long championed recall legislation as a way to defend ordinary people from groups who wield more influence. The province’s legislature has debated numerous attempts at recall legislation over the past two decades. Mr. Smith’s private member’s bill, which has worked its way through half of the law-making process, may be the closest to receiving approval since the 1930s.
“In our system of democracy, especially in Alberta, there are deep roots in the idea that our representatives should be accountable to the people who vote for them. We have an opportunity to do that now and we ran on this as a political party,” Mr. Smith said in an interview.
To eject an MLA from office and force a by-election, the bill would require a resident in the legislator’s riding to collect signatures from 40 per cent of voters. The resident would have a 60-day window to collect the signatures, and could only begin circulating a petition once an MLA has been in office for at least 18 months.
The system would be similar to a recall law in British Columbia that has been in force since 1995. British Columbians have initiated 26 recalls according to Elections BC, although 25 of those recalls failed because not enough signatures were collected. One recall was stopped while the chief electoral officer was verifying signatures because the legislator chose to resign.
According to Mr. Smith, the 40-per-cent figure was chosen to ensure that only legislators who have transgressed in a significant way are booted from office. The now-defunct Wildrose Party, which merged with the province’s Progressive Conservative Association to form Mr. Kenney’s United Conservatives, once proposed recall legislation that required half as many signatures. “Recalls shouldn’t be easy to do, but they should be doable,” Mr. Smith said.
Chris Nielsen, a New Democrat MLA, said he is concerned by the lack of rules in the bill to keep out third-party advertisers, who he says could then funnel unlimited money into local recall campaigns.
“We’re going to have perpetual, U.S.-style politics. If there is going to be a recall it should be between an MLA and their constituents,” he said. The opposition intends to propose amendments to keep out third-party groups.
Keith Brownsey, who teaches political science at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said that if history is a guide, Mr. Kenney’s UCP should be concerned about who will become the target of recall legislation. Alberta’s Social Credit government of 1936 adopted recall legislation, only to see angry, unemployed farmers and oil workers attempt to recall then-premier William Aberhart the next year. The legislation was quickly repealed before Mr. Aberhart could be removed from office.
“The UCP might want to be careful of what they’re wishing for. If someone wants to recall a cabinet minister because of the cuts they have been announced or the lack of improvement in the economy, they could find themselves to be the targets,” he said.