NOTEBOOK: a bellwether election for Alberta?

May 5, 2015

Could Alberta become  a bellwether for politics in North America’s oil patch?

Alberta citizens vote in a provincial election today.  Alberta — world famous as home of the oil sands — has been ruled by the Progressive Conservative party for more than four decades, and it is the base of Canada’s hard-right federal Conservative government. Now the socialist New Democratic Party, which received less than 10 per cent of the popular vote in 2012,  is on a wave of massive popular support, and numerous opinion polls give it a shot at governing.

The election of a socialist government in right-wing Alberta would have been unthinkable until now — but amid social and political upheaval, global oil prices are volatile and plunging, and communities almost entirely reliant on oil and gas extraction are suffering.

Alberta-based journalists Penney Kome and Sean Holman consider aspects of the election issues.

Photo of an Alberta oil rig by Greg Locke, Copyright 2014
Alberta oil rig. Photo by Greg Locke © 2014

Transparency Issue Little Seen on Campaign Trail

By Sean Holman

Alberta’s freedom of information law is weak and underused. Yet, in an election where one of the most important issues is government accountability, there has been surprisingly little discussion about reforming that law – despite proposed policy changes that could further threaten the public’s right to know.

Progressive Conservative leader Jim Prentice, Incumbent premier. Photo: premier's office
Progressive Conservative leader Jim Prentice, Incumbent premier. Photo: premier’s office

According to a 2012 report from the Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta tied with New Brunswick and the federal government for having the worst freedom of information law in the country. In addition, it costs $25 just to file a freedom of information request in Wildrose Country  –  among the highest application fees in the country.

I can’t help but think that’s one reason why the province’s access law is so underused.

According to the most recent statistics available, in fiscal 2012/13 Alberta government ministries received 60 general freedom of information requests per 100,000 people in the province. By comparison, in Ontario, where the application fee for those requests is $5, that number was 87 in 2012. And, in British Columbia, where there is no charge, that number was 106 in 2012/13.

But, troublingly, Premier Jim Prentice has a plan that could further suppress such access requests in Alberta even further.

Right now, an individual who files a freedom of information request is the only one who receives the records responsive to it. That means reporters and others can get scoops from making those requests – a reward for the considerable time, effort and sometimes money spent on them.

But, in February, CBC News revealed the premier moved to take those scoops away by “personally” ordering government to post responses online for everyone to see, including competing reporters. And if you don’t think that’s a disincentive, just think how you would feel if someone else could constantly claim credit for work you were responsible for.

Prentice’s order has yet to be carried out. Nevertheless, the platforms for the Alberta Party, the NDP and the Alberta Liberals don’t include a word about strengthening the province’s freedom of information law. Only Wildrose’s platform promises such a change, while the Greens have a plank that commits them to a “radical overhaul of rules around transparency and accountability.”

Nor have journalists talked much about the need for reform either, perhaps because they believe too many believe Canadians don’t care about that issue – a self-defeating notion, even if it may sometimes be a truthful one.

But what all this amounts to is, at the very least, a missed opportunity to change that indifference, raising awareness among Albertans about why their information rights are important and how those rights can prevent another 44 years of unaccountable governments in this province.

To read Sean Holman’s full column, Transparency Issue Little Seen on Campaign Trail, visit his site.   

Copyright Sean Holman 2015

Sean Holman is assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta

Hay field in Peace River, Alberta. Photo by Greg Locke, copyright 2009
Hay field in Peace River, Alberta. Greg Locke © 2009

Alberta poised to turn NDP orange as Tory grip on power withers

By Penney Kome

Alberta, the province that elected North America’s first Muslim mayor, is flirting with another surprise: a feminist New Democrat government — or at least Opposition — led by labour lawyer Rachel Notley. Notley worked for decades in the essential and very contentious fields of workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety, in B.C. as well as Alberta. Twice elected to the legislature (2008, 2012), she became party leader last October. All of her own accomplishments are enhanced by her heritage as daughter of the late revered ND leader, Grant Notley. His tragic 1984 death in a small plane crash plunged even conservative Albertans into mourning.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, on May 3. Photo: Don Voaklander, creative commons
Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, on May 3. Photo: Don Voaklander, creative commons

In the 2015 snap election, called before the official “fixed” election date, the NDP is running a full team of 87 candidates — 52 per cent of whom are women. An April 13 election poll found the NDP running strongly, with 30 per cent of decided voters, compared to 24 per cent for the Conservatives and 31 per cent for the remaining rump of the far right Wildrose Party. “NDP feel momentum building in Calgary,” the Herald reported on April 18.

Jim Prentice must be wondering what happened to the Progressive Conservative party’s iron grip on Alberta politics. Sometimes compared to visionary Premier Peter Lougheed, Prentice was the only federal Harperite to vote in favour of same-sex marriage. He was elected federally three times, in 2004, 2008 and 2010, with Harper as leader and held three different Cabinet posts, serving consecutively as minister of Indian Affairs, Industry, and the Environment. Then he stepped down, and returned to private life for four years, until he ran for and won the provincial leadership in 2014.

True, he inherited a party in disarray after the Conservatives unceremoniously dumped Alison Redford — and a one-resource economy in disarray, after the price of oil plummeted. This spring, he had to postpone his proposed budget a month to see which way the oil prices were blowing. Prentice did score a major coup when he recruited Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her Wildrose MLAs, getting them to cross the floor just before Christmas. That should have ended the Wildrose threat — but it didn’t. Instead, under new leader Brian Jean, Wildrose’s five remaining MLAs and 81 candidates are attracting nearly a third of decided voters — 31 per cent.

Read Penney Kome’s full column, Alberta poised to turn NDP orange as Tory grip on power withers, on  

Copyright Penney Kome 2015

Penney Kome is an author and journalist based in Calgary.