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It's time for recall legislation in Alberta

January 17, 2019
It's time for recall legislation in Alberta

If politicians work for the people, the people should be able to give politicians pink slips for poor performance.

If legislation belongs to the people, the people should be able to repeal it if it goes against our wishes.

This idea is not new and is used in various countries around the world. Referred to as recall and initiative legislation, this tool allows voters to launch a petition and, if it gets the required number of signatures, citizens can then go to the ballot box to decide whether to recall a politician in a byelection or deal with legislation in a vote.

British Columbia’s recall legislation came into force in 1995. MLA Paul Reitsma got caught sending fake letters-to-the-editor and resigned just before a recall campaign could push him out. When the B.C. government tried to raise taxes while harmonizing provincial and federal sales taxes, voters forced a referendum and defeated the legislation.

In the United States, 55 per cent of recall proceedings against state legislators have been successful.

Critics worry that recall legislation would result in a never-ending cycle of elections, but this hasn’t happened in B.C. Only one politician has been booted by recall legislation in almost 25 years and he voluntarily resigned when he saw the writing on the wall. In the U.S., 38 state legislator recall elections have occurred, which isn’t an overwhelming figure when you consider recall was first introduced at the state level in 1908.

There are mechanisms that Alberta can copy from other jurisdictions to ensure political chaos doesn’t ensue. For example, B.C.’s recall process can’t be initiated until 18 months after the politician is elected. Further, recalls aren’t easy to execute. B.C. requires more than 40 per cent of eligible voters to sign a petition to initiate a byelection. In reality, a politician’s behaviour has to be outrageous to generate thousands of petition signatures and even then, the issue goes to final arbitration at the ballot box.

Consider some examples.

Consider former premier Alison Redford. It took six weeks of mounting political pressure over expense scandals, including a $45,000 taxpayer-funded trip, for internal political machinery to finally force her to step down from the premier’s seat. In the wake of a damning auditor general’s report, Redford finally resigned after collecting paycheques as an MLA for another five months. Surely a recall process would have been better than months of backroom political brokering.

Consider the Lethbridge city councillor Darlene Heatherington’s refusal to step down after being charged with fabricating a story about a stalker. Surely a recall process would have been better for both citizens of Lethbridge and the troubled councillor.

Consider Alberta’s carbon tax. The province’s politicians never bothered asking pesky voters whether they supported the tax. Instead, they implemented their new revenue tool conveniently after being elected, and in doing so, completely circumvented democratic checks and balances. There’s a clear contrast with Washington State where voters have had the opportunity to reject a carbon tax in two referendums. Recall legislation would have given Albertans the opportunity to repeal the carbon tax or punish politicians for not including the tax in their platform.

And here lies a reason some push back against recall tools: it’s much more difficult for government to rule paternalistically and push its interests if citizens can hit the eject button.

There are ways for the next Alberta government to implement recall legislation responsibly. The province needs politicians that are willing to reaffirm the role of the citizen as the boss.

This column was originally published in the Calgary Sun on January 17, 2019. 

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