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'Bumbling and stumbling': Alberta's UCP caucus votes for changes to sovereignty bill

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith watches Minister of Justice and Solicitor General of Alberta Tyler Shandro speak at a press conference after the throne speech in Edmonton, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — Alberta's governing United Conservative caucus says it wants changes to fix a bill that grants sweeping, unchecked powers to Premier Danielle Smith and her cabinet to pass laws behind closed doors without the scrutiny and approval of the legislature. 

Smith, meanwhile, is facing Opposition demands to explain to Albertans whether she is authoritarian or incompetent, given the way her signature sovereignty bill has rolled out. 

“She either got caught in her attempt to seize power and is now desperately scrambling to cover that up, or she literally didn’t know what was in her bill and very possibly still doesn’t,” Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said during question period Monday. 

“She’s lost people’s trust with this bumbling and stumbling. 

“Her bill is beyond saving. Why won’t she just withdraw it?” 

Smith responded that she welcomes the changes. 

"I want to make sure that we get this bill right and I’m grateful that my caucus is going to propose amendments to do that.” 

Smith said over the weekend that amendments were in the works to reverse provisions of the sovereignty bill that grant her cabinet the unfettered powers. 

She told her Saturday morning radio talk show that the unchecked powers were never supposed to be in the bill, but she didn’t explain how they got there.

"You never get things right 100 per cent right all the time," she said on the show. 

In a news conference Monday, Justice Minister Tyler Shandro declined multiple times to explain how those provisions made it into the bill if they weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.

Shandro also rejected a suggestion they had made an error.

“I’m not going to characterize it as a mistake,” he said. “Folks had questions and they’re asking for clarity and we’re taking that feedback.” 

Smith’s United Conservative caucus said in a news release Monday that it voted to propose an amendment to clarify that any changes cabinet makes to laws under the act can’t be done in secret, but must instead come back to the house for the normal process of debate and approval. 

The caucus also voted to change the act to more narrowly spell out when cabinet can take action. 

Under the current bill, cabinet has wide latitude to respond to whatever federal law policy or program it deems harmful to Alberta’s interests. 

With the amendment, harm would be defined as anything a majority of the legislature deems to be an unconstitutional federal intrusion in provincial areas of responsibility. 

“These proposed amendments reflect feedback we’ve received from Albertans who want to see aspects of Bill 1 clarified to ensure it gets across the finish line,” government whip Brad Rutherford said in the release. 

The release does not contain suggested legal wording of the amendments and the amendments have yet to be presented to the house. 

The bill is now in second reading. 

Political scientist Duane Bratt said the proposed amendments represent a major climbdown. 

"Both of those were flagged early and often by critics of the bill. Those were two of the most outrageous things in there,” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary. 

He said the outstanding question is how did these clauses end up in the bill in the first place. 

"Either they meant it that this is something they wanted to do … meant it and didn't think anyone would notice, meant it but didn't anticipate the backlash or they were just cut-and-pasting legislation and they didn't think it all through." 

Either way, said Bratt, "it looks incompetent." 

Smith introduced the bill a week ago, characterizing it as a deliberately confrontational tool to reset the relationship with a federal government that she accuses of interfering in constitutionally protected areas of provincial responsibility from energy development to health care. 

The bill has been widely criticized by political scientists and legal experts as constitutionally questionable and a threat to the checks and balances that underpin a healthy democracy. 

Indigenous leaders have called it a heavy-handed trampling of treaty rights. Business groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, warn the legal uncertainty surrounding the bill is not good for investment. 

Concerns remain over the provision that would grant Smith’s cabinet the right to order provincial entities — municipalities, schools, health regions, city police forces and others — to flout federal laws. 

There is also concern that the legislature is usurping the role of the courts by deciding on its own under the bill what is constitutional and what is not.

 “This is a good first step,” said law professor Martin Olszysnki with the University of Calgary. 

“But it doesn’t address the fundamental underlying premise of the statute that the legislature can give itself the role of the courts in passing judgment on the validity of federal laws.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 5, 2022.

— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary 

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press