Braid: Step by step, the UCP bends Alberta authorities to its will

These are the latest moves in a widespread consolidation of provincial government power

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New rules for towns and cities make it clear who’s the boss. It’s the UCP government, not local councils or the voters who elect them.

Under upcoming laws unveiled Thursday, the province will be able to step into a local council and fire individual members.

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The province can also overturn a local bylaw on any subject, widely expanding its existing power to block only land-use laws.

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In another echo of post-pandemic grudges, the UCP appears to take control over any municipal orders on public health measures.

These are the latest moves in a widespread consolidation of provincial government power.

Step by step, local authorities are being nudged into line as the UCP lays down the building blocks of sovereignty.

Premier Danielle Smith has stepped into university research funding, adding a requirement for more conservative ideology.

Annoyed by Ottawa striking direct deals with towns and cities, a UCP bill would make any agreement invalid if the province isn’t directly involved.

That seems to be aimed mainly at Calgary and Edmonton, which constantly annoy the UCP with bilateral federal deals.

But the bill reaches into the smallest municipality, education boards, universities, health authorities, and Crown and public agencies.

No public authority in Alberta dares to deal with the federal government unless provincial watchers are on hand to stamp approval.

That’s a heavy load of bureaucracy from a government that loves to boast about its department of red tape reduction.

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Thursday’s announcements relate to local elections, councils and political funding. They add up to the biggest overhaul of these rules in many years, all based on the premise that the province is supreme.

That’s true in law, of course; but the province has usually been a benevolent parent, tolerant of local diversity and even a certain amount of opposition.

That era is fading fast, despite Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver’s promise that the province will rule with a gentle hand.

The most striking measure — drawing up rules for civic political parties — is driven by UCP dreams of sweeping big-city progressives from power.

That will only happen in Edmonton and Calgary. Why not write party rules that cover every municipality?

McIver isn’t interested. He says smaller centres are free to allow parties if they like, but there’s little interest.

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Another reason, I’d suggest, is that most councils in rural Alberta are already comfortably loaded with UCP supporters.

Ric McIver
Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver introduced legislation to amend the Local Authorities Election Act on April 25, 2024. Photo by Shaughn Butts /Postmedia

But Conservative governments, from Progressive Conservative to United Conservative, have always failed to wedge their own loyalists into the mayors’ offices in Calgary and Edmonton. This they find deeply irritating.

The ultimate slap was Edmonton’s election of Amarjeet Sohi, a former Trudeau Liberal cabinet minister.

In Calgary they’re stuck with progressive Jyoti Gondek, who in 2021 handily defeated conservative challenger Jeromy Farkas.

It was nothing new. In 2001, Dave Bronconnier became mayor after running federally for the Liberals in 1997 and getting soundly thumped.

He was a successful city leader who got many projects built, won three elections and gave the PCs fits in a series of tense showdowns with then-premier Ed Stelmach over broken funding promises.

Next came Naheed Nenshi. In 2010, he defeated conservative McIver, who moved on to provincial politics and introduced the measures Thursday.

In 2017, conservative backers put up local businessman Bill Smith, a former president of the provincial PC party. He did very well but still finished 30,000 votes behind Nenshi.

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Naheed Nenshi
Now, former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has thrown his hat into the Alberta NDP leadership race. Photo taken in Calgary on Monday, March 11, 2024. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

It’s a sorry history — conservatives just can’t crack these eggs. But now, big-city parties might work for the UCP.

Gondek and the current council majority brought in measures, including blanket zoning and the bag bylaw, that were never mentioned in the 2021 campaign.

Parties would make the stakes much clearer, the theory goes, by releasing platforms saying what they would and would not do with a majority.

And that would draw out conservative-minded voters who previously had no idea what their ward candidates stood for.

The thinking might well be correct, if only because so many people are deeply unhappy with this council.

But there’s no missing what goes on here. The UCP is massaging the whole public sector into fit shape for loyal service.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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