Dissatisfied citizens in Alberta will soon be able to remove their legislators from elected office, something one advocate believes is also necessary in other Canadian jurisdictions.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced in early January that MLA recall legislation will be introduced in the spring.
This came after Kenney removed MLA Pat Rehn from the United Conservative Party (UCP) caucus for travelling abroad over the holidays, as well as for ignoring “calls from me, UCP caucus leadership, and his constituents” to “be more present in his constituency” of Lesser Slave Lake.
“This whole story shows why we need recall legislation that works for Albertans and for the rest of Canada, so it can let us hold politicians accountable,” says Franco Terrazzano, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Terrazzano said voters should have the right to remove politicians like Rehn from office entirely.
“It all boils down to a very important principle, and that is that the people are the boss of politicians,” he said in an interview. “We should be able to fire politicians when they misbehave.”
Rehn vacationed in Mexico during the Christmas holidays, flouting non-essential travel recommendations. Soon after he returned, the Lesser Slave Lake town council asked for his resignation in an open letter, complaining that he has failed to properly represent the region spends little time there.
British Columbia passed recall legislation in 1995 whereby voters can recall an MLA and force a byelection if more than 40 percent of a riding’s eligible voters sign a recall petition within 60 days of the petition being issued. Since then, B.C.’s chief electoral officer has approved 26 recall petitions, but Elections BC only received six for verification. Of those, five didn’t have enough signatures and one was halted because the MLA resigned during the verification process.
The UCP promised recall legislation in its 2019 election campaign. In a report published in November 2020, a committee of Alberta MLAs recommended enacting legislation that would allow voters to recall an MLA should at least 40 percent of registered electors in the MLA’s electoral division sign a recall petition within 90 days of the petition being issued.
‘Key Accountability Tool’
Terrazzano says recall is a “key accountability tool” but wants the signature threshold set at 25 percent.
“We need recall legislation that’s more than just window dressing. We need recall legislation where the requirements to hold a byelection aren’t too onerous,” he said.
The threshold was much higher when Alberta Premier William Aberhart introduced recall legislation in the province in 1935. Ironically, he became the legislation’s first target in 1937, as the required two-thirds of his voting constituents in Okotoks-High River signed a recall petition. His Social Credit government retroactively repealed the recall legislation, and in 1940 Aberhart ran in Calgary instead and won his seat.
Barry Cooper, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, has a somewhat personal connection with the historic event.
“A family friend of my dad’s generation was instrumental in [repealing the legislation]. And when I was a kid, this was the sort of thing that people talked about all the time, about how you can’t really trust politicians,” Cooper said in an interview.
Cooper calls recall legislation a “concession to diffuse a general discontent with political decisions.”
He said a backlash against pandemic measures could inspire renewed interest in recall legislation elsewhere in Canada.
“I doubt that under normal circumstances people would be discussing it. It is generally associated with populism, but it really becomes important to the electorate when they’re very dissatisfied with basically bad political decisions and I think that’s probably what’s going on now.”
Rehn, who will now sit as an independent, was one of six UCP MLAs who travelled abroad over the holidays. The resulting controversy led to the resignation of Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard and Kenney’s chief of staff Jamie Huckabay. The other four MLAs were demoted. Saskatchewan Highways Minister Joe Hargrave and Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips also resigned following travel scandals.
Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, said bringing in recall legislation helps Kenney address the travel scandal.
“Enacting it would be a way of responding to the furor over his travelling caucus members. That’s the kind of thing that gets people aroused and saying, we’d like to get that bum out of there,” Flanagan said.
“But the legislation will be made so difficult to use that in practice it probably won’t be,” he adds. “So that’s what you call a statesmanlike compromise—it will serve a political purpose at the time.”
He says the party discipline involved in parliamentary democracy makes recall less necessary and less appropriate than it would be in other systems.
“At the local level you can make an argument for recall, but at the provincial and federal levels I think it runs contrary to the way that a parliamentary government operates.”