'Lies and corruption' vs. 'many achievements': NDP and UCP look back at fall legislative session
EDMONTON -- Alberta's UCP government and the opposition NDP each recapped an at-times tumultuous fall legislative session following its final sitting Thursday.
New Democrat House Leader Deron Bilous first spoke to media about a fall session that "has been marked by Jason Kenney's cuts, lies and corruption," the NDP said in a news release.
Bilous repeated the party's message that the UCP has slashed spending on the public sector to pay for a $4.7-billion tax break for corporations, a number that the UCP has disputed.
"Even now [Kenney] denies his $4.7-billion corporate handout is real, even though it’s written in plain text on page 144 of his own budget," said Bilous. "He’s taken on a style that’s very popular in American politics these days, which is to deny facts that everyone can see."
Then at noon, Government House Leader Jason Nixon spoke "about government's many achievements as the fall sitting of the legislature ends."
Nixon reminded reporters that in a previous session he had promised "you ain't seen nothing yet."
"I can confidently say I stand by that notion after this successful fall session. Since we formed government seven months ago, 162 of our platform commitments have been met or are substantially underway. That's 162 promises in just 219 days," he said, touting the passage of bills like the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Act, the Disclosure to Protect Against Domestic Violence and the Farm Freedom and Safety Act.
While some bills received support from both parties, much of the fall session was filled with fiery debate over certain UCP proposals.
BILL 22: ELECTION COMMISSIONER FIRED
The UCP has largely characterized the work completed in this session as undoing damage to Alberta's economy that they blame on the previous NDP government.
The parties have been at odds on the majority of legislation that has passed through the chamber.
That includes several controversial bills like Bill 22, the Reform of Agencies, Boards and Commissions and Government Enterprises Act, which effectively pushed former Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson out of a job.
It came as Gibson was investigating allegations of illegal donations in the UCP's 2017 leadership race and prompted outrage from the opposition NDP. Gibson's office had already handed out dozens of fines totalling more than $200,000 in the investigation.
"It reeks of political interference. It reeks of corruption. It reeks of the sort of entitlement and self-dealing the Conservatives became known for," Notley said at the time.
Speaking Thursday, Nixon said it was simply a move to save money and the government has made no secret of the fact that it plans on slashing spending wherever it can.
"We did run on finding efficiencies within government, removing redundancies where we found it and making sure we could move forward and maintain services," he said. "We were against breaking that role into two roles when we were in opposition."
In one dramatic moment in November, Notley was kicked out of a legislature sitting after she refused to apologize for comments saying that the UCP was obstructing justice by firing Gibson mid-investigation.
Alberta's ethics commissioner said anyone under investigation by Gibson's office may have violated ethics laws if they discussed or voted on Bill 22.
Political watchdog group Democracy Watch recently called for an RCMP investigation overseen by a special prosecutor into whether Kenney's cabinet obstructed justice by firing Gibson.
BILL 207: CONSCIENCE RIGHTS DEBATE
Another bill that sparked heated debate was Bill 207, the so-called "conscience rights" bill.
The private member's bill, sponsored by Peace River UCP MLA Dan Williams, proposed that doctors in the province be allowed to refuse both service and a referral on moral grounds.
Opponents said it would harm LGBT people and undo access to abortion procedures, which are legal throughout Canada.
The bill was shot down by a standing committee in late November in an 8-2 vote and it has not been recommended to proceed to a second reading legislature.
The fall sitting was adjourned before MLAs decided whether or not to accept the committee's report.
ARGUING OVER HEALTH CARE SPENDING
Bilous also took aim at the government's cuts to education and health care spending, saying it has forced "multi-million-dollar shortfalls onto school districts across the province" and led to mass layoffs of teachers in Calgary.
Health care unions like the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, United Nurses of Alberta and Health Sciences Association of Alberta say they've been notified ahead of collective bargaining that up to 7,400 full-time equivalent positions will be lost through attrition.
The government says panicked reaction to the cuts is overblown and that such moves are necessary to restore Alberta's economy.
"We’ve always been clear that getting our province’s finances back in order will require a reduction in the overall size of the public service and we hope to achieve that primarily through attrition," Kenney said at an event in Lake Louise last week.
Unions and the NDP accused Kenney of breaking a campaign promise to maintain or increase health care spending, but he says he's kept the pledge because health spending increased by $150 million in the budget.
The proposed cuts have prompted six prominent unions to band together in opposition and say a general strike is being considered.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST CONCERNS
The NDP reiterated their corruption claims using the example of Steven Allan, the head of Alberta's oil and gas inquiry.
Allan came under scrutiny after it was revealed he hired a Calgary law firm on a $900,000 contract for legal advice. His son, Toby, is a partner at the firm.
The NDP called for an ethics commissioner investigation to determine whether there was a conflict of interest in hiring the law firm, Denton's. Kenney said his party was advised by public service there was no conflict of interest but
The request was denied as the commissioner said she did not have jurisdiction in the matter.
DECORUM IN THE ASSEMBLY
In an incident that could be seen as emblematic of this session, a miscommunication over room booking escalated into a dramatic moment in the legislature's media room on Thursday.
Shortly before Bilous' news conference was to begin, UCP staff told the NDP they couldn’t use the room because they hadn't booked it properly.
The UCP said there was no availability until after Nixon spoke at noon, while the NDP maintained they had a verbal agreement to use the room at 10:45 a.m. before he spoke.
The solution was a simple one as the news conference moved to the Edmonton Federal Building across the street, but it emphasized the bad blood between the two parties.
Asked about decorum in the legislature this past session, Nixon said he was "very proud" of the government's tone.
"They have remained disciplined. Premier Kenney did an incredible job of bringing decorum back to this legislature," he said.
When constant sparring between the parties was brought up at Bilous' availability, he said NDP MLAs are "rightly frustrated" over the UCP's agenda.
"For me, what's the most egregious in this session is again what was promised versus what was in this budget," he said.
POLITICAL SCIENTIST'S PERSPECTIVE
MacEwan University political scientist Chaldeans Mensah says the dynamic in this legislature has been "very unique."
"For the first time in maybe decades you have a real sharp divide," he said. "It made for a very contested situation in the legislature."
He said the party acrimony is reflected in the province's urban-rural divide.
"For the government supporters, the base, they’re not worried at all because this is what the government promised," said Mensah. "So they’re really in tune with that program they’re implementing, but on the public sector side, especially in the big cities in the education sector, health care sector, municipalities, they’re beginning to feel the bite."
Mensah said despite criticism, he expects Kenney to take a page out of Ralph Klein's book and stay the course on the UCP's agenda. He doesn't think the NDP will waver either.
"The divide is not going to end, it’s a very clear ideological divide," he said. "You don’t see political actors on both sides compromising."