Last November, Premier Jason Kenney promised Albertans to introduce a citizen-led referendum law, or citizens’ initiative, to “give Albertans the power to hold this and future governments to account if we do not keep our commitment to stand up for Alberta.” It’s time for Kenney’s United Conservatives to make good on their promise and pass citizens’ initiative during the upcoming fall legislative session.
Citizens’ initiative is based on a simple, but very important principle: if legislation belongs to the people, then the people should have a direct ability to introduce laws, hold politicians accountable and repeal bad legislation.
Citizens’ initiative has been successful in British Columbia where it allowed voters to defeat the HST after the government bungled the transition process. While not through the formal citizens’ initiative process, the power of referendums was on full display in Calgary when taxpayers voted against the Olympic bid boondoggle and in B.C. where voters shut down the proposed TransLink tax.
After Alberta’s New Democrats imposed their carbon tax without mentioning it in their 2015 election platform, citizens’ initiative would have given Albertans the opportunity to repeal the tax.
Citizens’ initiative would also help advance Alberta’s agenda in Ottawa. On constitutional issues such as equalization, Ottawa has legal duty to negotiate with the province if a referendum results in a clear majority on a clear question. Is there any doubt that Albertans would have had that referendum by now if we had citizens’ initiative? Importantly, Alberta’s legislation must allow citizens to initiate referendums on constitutional issues. A restriction against citizen-led constitutional referendums would mean that critical issues to Albertans such as equalization and internal free trade would be off the table unless the government of the day allows it.
Citizens' initiative in Alberta also bring us one step closer to citizen-led referendums at the federal level. Albertans need a federal party willing to include citizens’ initiative in their policy mix, and the more provinces that have citizens’ initiative on their own, the more likely we are to have a federal party adopt the policy. If, for example, Albertans pushed for a referendum to abolish the No More Pipelines Act, that would at least put the issue on the national stage more than a simple opinion poll. In fact, that may be one of the best ways to bring our energy issues into the national spotlight.
A common concern with citizens’ initiative is that it may lead to a never ending cycle of referendums. Fortunately, there’s many different referendum laws we can follow to make sure Alberta’s model doesn’t lead to political chaos while still giving citizens a fair shot at passing our laws.
When the UCP first promised to introduce citizens’ initiative, it said that it would follow B.C.’s example where citizens must collect petition signatures from 10 per cent of registered voters in 90 days to force a referendum. That doesn’t sound so bad at first glance, but it meant collecting more than 320,000 signatures in B.C.’s last initiative attempt, which translates to more than 3,500 signatures per day. These onerous rules explain why only one referendum attempt has collected enough signatures to trigger a referendum in B.C. since citizens’ initiative came into effect in 1995.
Contrast B.C.’s rules with the rules in California, which has a population similar to the size of Canada, but requires less than double the amount of signatures to trigger a referendum than B.C. does. If Kenney wants citizens’ initiative to be more than just window dressing, he’ll need to make sure the rules are less onerous than B.C.’s.
In the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s presentation to the province’s Democratic Accountability Committee, we advocated the Alberta government take a more middle-ground approach and follow the rules in Idaho, which require signatures for six per cent of voters to trigger a referendum. The citizens of Idaho also have 18 months to collect the required signatures. Based on the number of registered voters from the last provincial election, Albertans would need to collect about 157,000 signatures to trigger a referendum, or less than 300 signatures per day.
Kenney should also implement a signature threshold for each electoral district to ensure interests in big cities and rural areas are both considered.
Citizens’ initiative is a powerful tool to give voters more influence over the laws that govern all Albertans. Kenney promised citizens’ initiative about a year ago and his government must fulfill that promise during this fall’s legislative session.
This column was originally published in the Western Standard on September 25, 2020.