First reading passes for new provincial referendum bill

The Alberta government held first reading on Bill 26 this week. If passed, it’d allow them to hold referendums.

The Alberta government held first reading on Bill 26 this past Tuesday. If passed, the bill would allow the government to hold referendums.

While introducing Bill 26, also known as the Constitutional Referendum Amendment Act, in Tuesday’s afternoon session, Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s justice minister, said the following:

The Constitutional Referendum Amendment Act, 2020, would allow the government to seek Albertans’ guidance on initiatives beyond constitutional matters. Referendums enhance democracy by consulting Albertans on issues of importance. As the Fair Deal Panel recommended, Albertans want a real and direct say on laws and issues that affect them to best meet their current and future needs. This legislation will help us strengthen democracy and increase accountability, giving Albertans a louder voice and a direct impact on the actions of government

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Typically, first readings of bills are simply to make the proposed legislation public. Debate and discussion will occur in subsequent readings.

However, there are some things you should know about Bill 26.

First, currently, the Constitutional Referendum Act allows for referendums on only issues related to the Canadian constitution. Bill 26 would expand this to include “any matter of public interest or concern”.

Second, according to the new section 5.1 to be added to the Constitutional Referendum Act, cabinet (otherwise known as Lieutenant Governor in Council) gets to decide if an issue warrants a referendum.

If the Lieutenant Governor in Council considers that an expression of public opinion is desirable on any matter of public interest or concern, other than a question or resolution referred to in section 1 or 2, the Lieutenant Governor in Council may order that a referendum be conducted in accordance with this Act and the regulations.

If, for example, a group of voters demand that a referendum be held on whether the government should spend $7.5 billion on a pipeline, but the cabinet decides they don’t want a referendum on that topic, they can turn down the request of those voters.

If cabinet does approve a referendum, according to section 2, they as cabinet get to decide the following:

  • What questions will be on the ballot
  • Whether to hold it in conjunction with an election or on its own
  • Where to hold it (it wouldn’t need to be held in NDP ridings, for example)
  • Whether the results of the referendum are even binding
  • Whether mail-in ballots would be allowed

Third, Bill 26 will add section 3.1 to the Election Act:

During a referendum period, a department or a Provincial
corporation shall not advertise or publish any information about
its programs or activities related to the subject-matter of the
referendum that has a disproportionate impact on voters in the
areas of Alberta in which the referendum is being held

I mean, that’s great and all that the government can’t try and sway public opinion directly, but—well, that leads to my next point.

Fourth, beyond this Constitutional Referendum Act amendment and a few minor changes to the Alberta Taxpayer Protection Act and the Election Act, most of the changes in Bill 26 are actually amending and adding sections in the Election Finances and Contributions Disclosure Act. In particular, “Part 6.12: Third Party Advertising—Referendum Act”.

Yep. You read that right. Third party advertising.

So, it’s great that they don’t want the government influencing public opinion, but now government officials can simply use third-party advertisers (TPAs) to do it for them.

Half of the 48-page document is dedicated to third party advertising, so I can’t really go into it much here. There are a few things I wanted to highlight though.

  • TPAs can spend up to $1 million in referendum advertising
  • All TPAs can’t accept donations unless they register
  • TPAs can’t accept donations from outside Alberta or from charities
  • Unregistered TPAs can’t spend more than $1,000
  • At a TPA meeting, any donations $50 or less collected for “general’ funds won’t be counted as advertising donations
  • Donations above $50 can’t be anonymous
  • Donations can’t be in behalf of someone else
  • TPAs must file weekly reports, including names and address for those who donate over $250 in that week.
  • Any TPAs spending above $350,000 must have their financial statements audited.
  • Any leftover funds must be donated to a charity, returned to contributors, or paid to the provincial government to be used as general revenue.

From what I can tell, everything else is minor or related to these points.

The great thing about third-party advertisers is that if Alberta holds enough referendums, political action committees can stay around for longer than every four years.

Which is awesome if you manage a political action committee.

Speaking of which . . . Hey, John Weissenberger, you may not want to shut down Alberta Victory Fund just yet.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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