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Recall and referendums would give more power to the people

January 31, 2020
Recall and referendums would give more power to the people

Albertans have waited long enough for politicians to reaffirm the role of the citizen as the boss. By passing recall and citizen referendum laws, Premier Jason Kenney would be making big steps for government accountability in Alberta.

Kenney promised to give Albertans the power to force votes on important issues this spring by adopting a citizen-initiated referendum law. In his election platform, Kenney also promised to give voters the power to boot misbehaving politicians by using recall legislation.

Both policies must become law in this upcoming legislative session.

Recall and citizen referendums are rooted in simple but very important principles. 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.  

For example: voters could have used recall legislation to boot former premier Allison Redford for her expense scandals instead of waiting for political operatives in the backrooms to push her out. Recall rules can help deter MLAs from racking up crazy expenses and allow voters to hold them accountable if they behave badly.

Citizen-led referendums could also bring benefits for Albertans.

It allowed B.C. voters to punt the HST after the government bungled the policy. Although not through a citizen-led initiative, the people were able to beat B.C.’s TransLink tax and Calgary’s Olympic bid boondoggle through referendums.

We could also use citizen referendums to progress Alberta’s agenda in Ottawa.

On constitutional issues, such as equalization, Ottawa is legally obligated to negotiate with the province if a provincial referendum results in a clear majority on a clear question. Is there any doubt that there would be a clear majority on an equalization referendum? If we had the power of citizen referendums for two-and-a-half decades like B.C. has, surely there would have been a referendum on equalization by now.

There’s always the concern that political chaos will ensue if politicians allow citizens a sliver of say in addition to elections. Fortunately, there’s many different referendum laws that Kenney can choose from to ensure Alberta’s model doesn’t lead to chaos but still gives citizens a fair shot at forcing a referendum.

Kenney initially indicated Alberta’s referendum law would be based on B.C.’s Recall and Initiative Act. B.C.’s model requires citizens to collect petition signatures from 10 per cent of registered voters in 90 days to trigger a referendum. At first glance that doesn’t sound so bad, but it meant collecting more than 320,000 signatures in B.C.’s last referendum attempt. That’s more than 3,500 signatures every day, which would be a tall order.

Contrast that with California, which has the population of Canada and only requires 623,212 petition signatures to trigger a referendum for a new statute. B.C.’s rules are very onerous, which explains why only one successful citizen referendum has occurred in 25 years.

Alberta’s model should likely lie somewhere in the middle. As radio host Danielle Smith recently pointed out, Idaho requires signatures for six per cent of voters to trigger a referendum. The citizens of Idaho also have up to eighteen months to collect petition signatures. If Kenney went with Idaho’s model, 113,700 signatures would be needed to trigger an Alberta referendum, but at least that would only be about 200 signatures a day.

Another important aspect of Idaho’s model is that it requires the signature threshold be met in more than half of its electoral districts. In Alberta, a threshold should be extended to every district (similar to B.C.) to ensure the interests in big cities, which account for more than half of Alberta’s ridings, don’t hijack the process.

Passing recall and citizen referendum laws during the upcoming legislative session would be a big win for accountability. Fortunately, Kenney’s got a lot of options to choose from to ensure it’s done right in Alberta.

This column was originally published in the Edmonton Sun on Jan. 31, 2020.

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