Last week, an organization called Envision Edmonton submitted to Edmonton City Hall the signatures of almost 100,000 residents, more than 10 per cent of the city’s entire population. This massive petition binds City council to hold a referendum on whether or not to close the Edmonton City Centre Airport.
The City council had already decided to close this billion-dollar piece of infrastructure critical to northern business development and turn it into some sort of “green” residential complex. Tens of thousands of Edmontonians evidently disagree with this decision as evidenced by the success of the petition.
Edmonton’s direct democracy law requires the petitioner to gather 10 per cent of residents’ signatures within 60 days. This is not an easy thing to do, especially in the middle of summer. It is also very difficult to do when many in the media, the mayor and every left-leaning academic in the city continuously questions the character and motives of the individuals organizing the campaign.
And this brings me to my main point. There are times when citizens need the ability to band together on an issue in order to legally override the decision of their political leaders and the overbearing influence of the self-proclaimed academic elites; they need the right of direct democracy.
To be clear, I do not feel the average Albertan wishes to be personally consulted on every proposed bill, decision or regulation. Albertans elect representatives they expect will study issues carefully and make evidence-based decisions when the time comes for a vote on the matter. If the sum of that representative’s judgments are acceptable to constituents, they will likely be voted in again at the next election. If not, a change in representation can be made. This is called representative democracy and I believe it to be an effective method of governance in most respects.
However, as with anything involving the bestowing of power on imperfect individuals, it is critical that there are checks and balances on that power. Power can corrupt. Toeing the party line can turn otherwise competent individuals into undiscerning sheep. Lobbyists and special interest groups can inappropriately leverage influence. And the media, in some instances, can drown out voices of thoughtful dissent.
When these situations arise, it is imperative that the common sense of the common people have recourse. This is why I, and the Wildrose caucus, believe that our province should pass direct democracy legislation such as citizen-initiated referenda and voter recall.
Some critics point to the pitfalls of poorly drafted direct democracy legislation in California and other parts of the world for why our province should not follow suit. This is like me telling you to never build a home because I know someone who built a house needed to replace a leaky roof shortly after moving in. This would of course be absurd. You might decide not to use that particular builder to construct your future home, but would you refuse to ever build a house because someone else happened to build a poor one?
Such is the case with direct democracy legislation. California’s version may be far too easy to trigger and provides inadequate financial parameters. Conversely, other jurisdictions, such as Switzerland, have successfully utilized direct democracy legislation as an everyday part of their governance structure for moree than 100 years. The lesson is to build the highest quality direct democracy laws possible using proven and effective models from elsewhere in the world.
And how might this type of legislation help us in Alberta? I’ll give one example – Bill 50. This law, recently passed by the PC government, not only mandates the building of billions of dollars worth of transmission lines (to be paid for by ratepayers like you and me) without the usual objective quasi-judicial needs analysis; it also permitted the government to award these building contracts without putting them up for a competitive bid. Instead, the contracts were divvied out to friends of the PC Party.
I am entirely convinced that the vast majority of Albertans across the entire political spectrum would like to see Bill 50 repealed. We saw an example of this in Vegreville last week (the Premier’s home riding) when 600 people, including the leaders of the Wildrose, Liberal and NDP parties, showed up at a community hall to protest the building of these transmission lines.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that most Albertans now understand this bill to be unethical, unneeded and will result in higher electricity bills for years, there is really nothing we can do about it other than replace the government at the next election. By then, the contracts will have been signed and most of the lines built. It will be difficult and expensive to reverse course. And this brings us back to the Edmonton airport. Once the runways are torn up they’ll be gone forever… good thing Edmontonians have the option to stop that from happening. Given the damage the current PC government has inflicted on this province since the last election, I’m sure Albertans wish they had the same option.