The wildfires currently ravaging Alberta come at a tricky time, namely right in the middle of a provincial election campaign. Premier Danielle Smith and Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis both have to wear two hats right now. On the one hand, they’re involved in trying to get the United Conservative Party re-elected. On the other hand, they’re also heavily involved in the province’s firefighting efforts. They still have to do their duties as premier and emergency services minister, such as caring for evacuees, coordinating the firefighting efforts, working with the federal government and the other provinces providing support and updating the public on what’s happening.
This illustrates the value of the ‘caretaker convention’ in Canadian politics. Under the caretaker convention, a premier or prime minister and their cabinets keep their titles even during an election when parliament or a provincial legislature is dissolved and can’t hold them to account. The caretaker convention restricts premiers, prime ministers and cabinets from making most decisions, but allows them and the public service to continue the normal day-to-day business of government even during an election. It also allows them to respond to a serious emergency like the current wildfires.
There are five main ways that political leaders can act under the caretaker convention. They can handle routine matters (like doing things that legislation might require them to do, such as signing documents or making low-level proclamations) do non-controversial things (like ensuring that contractors who’ve already provided services to governments get paid the money they’re owed), do things that any new political leader or Cabinet can easily reverse (like make decisions on internal matters like information technology), do things that opposition parties might agree to after consulting them, or handle issues that are urgent and in the public interest.
On the other hand, political leaders and their cabinets should avoid making controversial, high-profile appointments, sign major contracts, conduct high-level negotiations with other governments, or make sweeping policy changes. One of the key elements of Canada’s system of ‘responsible government’ is that parliament or the provincial legislature hold political leaders and their cabinets to account. They obviously can’t do that during an election, so political leaders and cabinets need to stick to ‘ordinary’ business as much as possible during the campaign.
The most obvious exception, of course, is handling anything that might be urgent and in the public interest. The province’s efforts to fight the wildfires and protect the lives and property of Albertans would obviously count. Normally, any high-level negotiations between the Alberta government and its federal or other provincial counterparts, not to mention spending large amounts of money, would have to wait until after the election is done and the next Premier and Cabinet are sworn in. Since the wildfires won’t wait, the caretaker convention allows Premier Smith and Minister Ellis to negotiate and spend as needed to help the people affect by the flames.
Albertans will deliver the final verdict on May 29.