EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has rejected suggestions she made a mistake when she introduced a bill that would give her cabinet sweeping powers to rewrite laws outside of the legislative process.
Smith says the changes being made to his sovereignty law that reverse that authority simply reflect the normal process of refining and clarifying legislation.
“The sovereignty law was not perfect in its wording. That’s why it’s being changed,” Smith told reporters Tuesday. “There are a couple of clarifications that we needed to make.
“I only see this as part of the process. You introduce bills with three readings for a reason.”
Smith has been widely criticized for inserting such unchecked powers into her sovereignty law as part of a broader plan to combat what she sees as federal encroachment on areas of provincial responsibility.
After allegations last week that the bill gave him those powers, Smith reversed course over the weekend, saying there would be amendments to fix it.
His comments were echoed by Justice Minister Tyler Shandro on Monday, when he told reporters: “I’m not going to characterize it as a mistake.”
Neither Smith nor Shandro have explained how the powers in the bill ended up if they weren’t supposed to be there.
Shandro pushed back on Monday from reporters who suggested he and other members of the Smiths United Conservative government misunderstood that the bill contained the broad powers provision.
“Of course, the bill was understood,” Shandro said.
Although #Alberta is changing its proposed sovereignty law to reduce the Premier’s unilateral powers, Danielle Smith insists the law is not a mistake. #abpoli
Asked if he agreed with the way the original bill was worded, Shandro, a lawyer, said he has provided legal advice to the cabinet “on what are the options and what are the pros and cons for different decision points.
“I am a member of the (cabinet) who votes for him,” he said. “I’m not going to talk specifically about a particular decision point and what my advice was on that. I think that would be breaching cabinet confidentiality.”
The opposition NDP says Smith was either caught trying to make a final power grab or is so incompetent that she introduced an authoritarian bill without knowing she was doing it.
On Tuesday, NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir asked Smith during question period to waive cabinet confidentiality so Shandro could explain to Albertans what legal advice he provided.
“This bill was a poorly worded attempt to give extreme power to the cabinet at the expense of the democratic rights of Albertans,” Sabir said. “Albertans deserve to know how such a disaster was created.”
Smith rejected Sabir’s claim, saying she has been open about the legal process.
“The reason we are introducing this legislation is to make sure that we are enforcing our rights under the Constitution,” he said. “That’s the beginning and the end.”
The bill is on second reading. The next stage, the plenary commission, is when the project will be discussed in greater detail, and that is when amendments are expected.
On Monday, members of the UCP caucus said they would submit two amendments.
The first change would clarify that any changes the cabinet makes to laws under the sovereignty law cannot be made in secret, but must go back to the house for the normal process of debate and approval.
The caucus also voted to propose an amendment to specify when the cabinet can take action.
Under the bill, the cabinet has wide latitude to respond to any federal policy or program it deems detrimental to Alberta’s interests.
With the amendment, damage would be defined as anything that a majority of the legislature considers to be unconstitutional federal encroachment on provincial areas of responsibility.
The bill has been criticized by political scientists and legal experts as constitutionally questionable and a threat to the checks and balances of democracy.
There is also concern that the legislature is usurping the role of the courts by deciding for itself under the bill what is constitutional and what is not.
Criticism comes from all sides of the political spectrum.
Kory Teneycke, a recent election campaign manager for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, told CBC’s “Power and Politics” Monday that the bill offends conservatism.
“I don’t see how you can fix this bill or why you would want to,” said Teneycke, who was also Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s communications director.
“UCP and Albertans are on the right track to say that the federal government has overreached on a number of issues related to the resource sector, where they are acting in an unconstitutional and heavy-handed manner, but the solution to unconstitutionality is no longer unconstitutional. ,” he said.
“I think this will go down in history as one of the most ill-conceived policies and laws. And frankly, as a conservative, he’s deeply anti-conservative.”
Business groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, warn that the legal uncertainty surrounding the bill is not good for investment.
Indigenous leaders have spoken out against it, saying it tramples on treaty rights.
Indian Relations Minister Rick Wilson told reporters that he has spoken with the leaders, listened to their concerns and urged them to propose amendments if they wish.
“I told him, ‘Put something together and I’ll be willing to take it forward on your behalf,’” Wilson said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 6, 2022.