Braid: UCP is taking more central power, but that's a good thing when the enemy is fire and flood

Sometimes, centralization isn’t such a bad thing

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The UCP government is on a mission to centralize power over everything from university research to municipal elections and local agreements with Ottawa.

There were at it again Thursday, introducing measures to change the date of the next election, assert control over emergency response, and give themselves more power over Alberta’s water and its distribution.

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Some of these changes seem almost entirely positive, although the wide authority over water will have to be watched with skepticism.

In a severe drought water becomes very political. Residents of one area could be alarmed when the province transfers water to another basin.

But even that change is defensible if the result is provincewide fairness of supply, not local favouritism based on support for the government.

There are already claims that the move to hold the next election in October 2027, rather than May, is just an excuse for the UCP to govern for five more months.

Some people are already calling for the date to be moved up to October 2026, thus giving the government less time rather than more.

They’ve got a point, but the politics aren’t the main element here.

Premier Danielle Smith gave a harrowing description of being in charge of firefighting last year when the legislature was suspended for the campaign, and she couldn’t even use a government phone due to campaign rules.

The fires disrupted local campaigning and even voting. Albertans never got the full campaign they deserved.

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Smith noted that our disasters routinely arrive in spring and early summer months — the Slave Lake Fire of 2011, the great Fort Mac blaze in 2016 and last year’s conflagrations.

It makes sense to remove the possibility of a government in caretaker mode having to face another spring crisis.

There’s nothing radical about October elections. Several other provinces hold their provincial elections that month, including Quebec and B.C. The federal election is set for Oct. 20 next year.

Overall, the government is pulling the outdated, fractured firefighting system into the age of megafires that cross borders of towns, counties and whole sectors of the province.

Once the legislation is passed, the province will be able to rush in when a fire shows no respect for government jurisdictions.

“We have no interest in getting into firefighting in areas that are completely under control within the borders of an individual municipality, and they can manage,” Smith said.

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“But as soon as it threatens to go cross-border or suddenly threatens to rage out of control, then we have to be prepared to step in. These are the kinds of decisions that have to happen quickly,” she added.

Danielle Smith
Premier Danielle Smith is looking to move provincial elections from May to October. Photo by Brent Calver /Postmedia Network

During last year’s fires there were many instances of poor communications, lack of data, muddled reporting and slow provincial response.

Much of that was caused by jurisdictional confusion. Municipalities have the first responsibility in emergencies, but often they were overwhelmed by fire and smoke.

New legislation will give the province power to move in immediately.

Smith said: “For some reason, we don’t have the authority to step in first when it’s going cross-jurisdiction.

“We have to demonstrate complete meltdown or complete failure on the part of the local firefighting agencies to step in.

“What this does is it gives the Ministry of Forestry and Parks direct line of sight over all the Crown lands that he was responsible for, whether it’s in a forested area or whether it’s in the grasslands area.”

Alberta Wildland and Fort McMurray firefighters
Wildland firefighters with Alberta Wildfire and members of the Fort McMurray Fire Department incinerate dead, dry vegetation during a controlled burn off Highway 63 near the Thickwood overpass in Fort McMurray on April 11, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Minister Todd Loewen said the province has a record number of firefighters on hand, despite union claims that crews aren’t coming on board.

He talked about night-vision aircraft that can perform fire suppression overnight. New tactics have already knocked down fires that might have run out of control last year.

Sometimes, centralization isn’t such a bad thing.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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