Chris Pecora

Playing with Fire

Kenney reneges on recall legislation.

By Graham Thomson

Among the United Conservative Party’s most fiery election promises during the 2019 campaign was one impossible to misinterpret: “Alberta’s United Conservatives will give voters the power to fire their MLAs if they break promises.” In the party’s Twitter feed, the word “FIRE” was in all caps. They weren’t messing around with this pledge.

Two years later, Alberta’s UCP government introduced, debated and passed a piece of legislation called the Recall Act that allows Albertans to kick out provincial politicians who have incurred the public’s wrath between elections. “This is one of the most important democratic reforms since our province was founded,” said Premier Jason Kenney in March 2021, giving an idea of just how vital this law was to him and his UCP compatriots. “At the end of the day, ordinary Alberta voters are the boss in our democracy, and if they lose faith in their elected representatives, they can hold them to account in between elections.”

The Recall Act was given royal assent on June 17, 2021. So, was there a rush by the public to recall unloved politicians? Or even a trickle? Maybe one? No.

Although the Recall Act had been passed by a majority vote in the legislative assembly and became a law last June, it was not “proclaimed in force.” Put another way, the government has not given a date on which the law is to take effect.

Until that happens, the law is on the bench waiting to be called into the game. And it would appear that isn’t going to happen until after the 2023 election.

Kenney hasn’t been particularly clear on why he has left “one of the most important democratic reforms” in Alberta’s history languishing. One argument is that the Recall Act was just a glimmer in Kenney’s eye during the 2019 provincial campaign, and it would be unfair for MLAs elected before the act became law to suddenly be subjected to it.

The UCP is in no hurry to proclaim its Recall Act—Alberta’s most unpopular politicians include Kenney himself.

Another argument is that Kenney is in no hurry to proclaim the Recall Act because the most unpopular politicians in his government include Kenney himself. At times over the past two years he has been the most disliked provincial leader in the country. And then there are cabinet ministers such as Tyler Shandro, who, as health minister, managed to run afoul of just about everybody in the healthcare system.

A keen student of political history, Kenney likes to point out that Alberta once upon a time had a recall law, as if that itself is a reason to bring it back. What he doesn’t say is the province has an awkward history of trying to recall unpopular politicians. In 1936, for instance, the newly elected Social Credit government of premier William Aberhart introduced recall legislation—but then scrambled to kill the statute retroactively in 1937 when voters in Aberhart’s riding of Okotoks-High River tried to recall him.

This is not to say voters would attempt to recall Kenney or would be successful if they tried. For one thing, per Kenney’s new-but-never-proclaimed law, the option of recall would be open only to the voters in the targeted MLA’s riding, not to voters across the province—and Kenney, it’s worth pointing out, won more than 65 per cent of the vote in deep-blue Calgary-Lougheed in 2019.

For another, the threshold to recall an MLA is high. You’d need to collect the signatures of 40 per cent of eligible voters in the riding within 60 days. That would trigger a recall vote to remove the MLA from their seat. If successful, that would lead to a second vote—a by-election—to fill the vacant seat. The process could not start within 18 months of the previous general election or within six months of the next one. That leaves a window of about 24 months to get things done.

It is a difficult process. Under British Columbia’s recall legislation, in place since 1995, for example, there have been 26 recall petitions, with only six making their way to Elections BC. Five of those were rejected and one approved. The one MLA facing dismissal resigned before he could be officially booted out by recall.

Alberta’s Recall Act, by the way, also covers municipal politicians and even school board trustees. Interestingly, the threshold to remove those politicians from office is lower. Even then, however, a recall campaign would require so much organization that Naheed Nenshi, when he was Calgary mayor, said the chance of anyone being recalled in a city the size of Calgary would be “zero.”

Recall legislation is more symbolic than pragmatic. Yet the symbolism of an attempted recall would be embarrassing for any politician, especially a cabinet minister or premier who became the target. The Recall Act remains, for the moment, a piece of political theatre, as it seems Premier Kenney is afraid that if the legislation were proclaimed into force as promised, he and/or other UCP MLAs could become the object of ridicule—if not actually yanked off the stage.

Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.

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