National Newswatch

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is rejecting suggestions she made a mistake when she introduced a bill that would give her cabinet sweeping powers to rewrite laws outside the legislative process.

Smith says the changes being made to her sovereignty act reversing that authority simply reflect the normal process of honing and clarifying legislation.

“The sovereignty act wasn’t perfect in its wording. That’s why it’s being amended,” Smith told reporters Tuesday. “There are a couple of clarifications that we needed to make.

“I just look at this as part of the process. You introduce bills with three readings for a reason."

Smith has been widely criticized for introducing those unchecked powers in her sovereignty act as part of a broader plan to fight what she deems federal intrusion in areas of provincial responsibility.

After accusations last week that the bill gave her those powers, Smith reversed course on the weekend and said there would be amendments to fix it. 

Her comments echoed those made 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 ended up in the bill if they were not supposed to be there.

Shandro pushed back Monday on reporters, who suggested he and the other members of Smiths United Conservative government didn’t understand that the bill contained the sweeping powers provision.

“Of course, the bill was understood,” said Shandro.

Asked if he was fine with the way the original bill was worded, Shandro, a lawyer, said he has given legal advice to cabinet "about what the options are, and what the advantages and disadvantages are for the various different decision points."

"I’m one member of (cabinet) who votes on it," he said. "I’m not going to speak specifically about one particular decision point and what my advice was on that. I think that would be breaching cabinet confidentiality."

The Opposition NDP says Smith either got caught trying to make an end-run power grab or is so incompetent she introduced an authoritarian bill without knowing she was doing it.

On Tuesday, NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir called on Smith during question period to waive cabinet confidentiality so Shandro could explain to Albertans what legal advice he delivered.

“This bill was a poorly drafted attempt at giving 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 assertion, saying she has been open about the legal process.

“The reason why we’re putting this legislation forward is to make sure that we are enforcing our rights under the Constitution," she said. "That is the beginning and the end of it."

The bill is in second reading. The next stage, committee of the whole, is when the bill is to be debated in greater detail, and that is when amendments are expected.

On Monday, UCP caucus members said they would forward two amendments. 

The first change would clarify that any changes cabinet makes to laws under the sovereignty act can't be done in secret, but must instead come back to the house for the normal process of debate and approval.

The caucus also voted to propose an amendment to spell out when cabinet can take action. 

Under the bill, cabinet has wide latitude to respond to whatever federal law policy or program it deems harmful to Alberta's interests.

With the amendment, harm would be defined as anything a majority of the legislature deems to be an unconstitutional federal intrusion in 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 on its own under the bill what is constitutional and what is not.

Criticism is coming from all sides of the political spectrum.

Kory Teneycke, manager of the recent Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario election campaign, told CBC's "Power and Politics" program on 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 the director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper. 

“The UCP and Albertans are on the right track in saying the federal government has overreached on a number of issues around the resource sector, where they’re acting in an unconstitutional and heavy-handed way – but the solution to unconstitutionality is not more unconstitutionality,” he said.

“I think this is going to go down in history as one of the most ill-conceived pieces of policy and legislation. And frankly, as a conservative, it’s profoundly unconservative.”

Business groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, warn the legal uncertainty surrounding the bill is not good for investment.

Indigenous leaders have come out against it, saying it tramples on treaty rights. 

Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson told reporters he has spoken to leaders, has heard their concerns and has urged them to propose amendments if they wish.

“I said, ‘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 Dec. 6, 2022.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press
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