It’s 9:00 Wednesday evening, and I just got home from the Legislature. The 2014 Fall sitting adjourned about 45 minutes ago, after passing Bill 2, the Accountability Act. The Tories and the Wildrose voted for it. The Liberals and the NDP voted against. Debate was very limited, and I feel there is more to be said.
Bill 2, the Accountability Act
Premier Prentice has touted this bill as a way of ensuring that the Tories regain the trust of Albertans. Announcing the bill, he said:
“I promised Albertans that as Premier, I will change the way things are done in government. I have been clear on my commitment to end entitlements and restore public trust. One of the first actions I will take when we return to the Legislature will be to introduce legislation that strengthens our accountability to Albertans.”
The PCs need to show Albertans that the excess and corruption that existed under Alison Redford has been ended, and more importantly, cannot happen again. Does Bill 2 do the job Albertans expect?
Certainly there are some improvements. Longer cooling off times for elected officials and senior bureaucrats, stronger conflict-of-interest guidelines for political staff, and greater separation between lobbyists and consultants are all improvements that just about everyone supports.
But let’s recall how this PC government lost the trust of Albertans in the first place. The scandals and ethical lapses that led to the fall of Alison Redford and plunging support for the PCs are surely what Bill 2 should address. If not, then Albertans can not be faulted for thinking the bill a failure and concluding the Tories have not learned their lesson.
Alison Redford was accused of a conflict of interest, when as Justice Minister she approved awarding a $10 billion contract to the law firm of her ex-husband and close political confidante Robert Hawkes. She denied having made the decision because her successor as Justice Minister actually signed the final contract. Documents tabled in the Assembly proved she had made the initial selection, which satisfied the requirements for a conflict set out in the Conflicts of Interest Act. But the Ethics Commissioner ruled that she did not personally benefit, so he found no conflict under the act.
Does Prentice’s Accountability Act fix this? Unfortunately, no. Conflict of interest is narrowly defined in existing legislation, and Bill 2 doesn’t change that. The NDP put forward an amendment to Bill 2 changing the Conflicts of Interest Act to prevent MLAs from involvement in decisions that benefit close political confidantes. The PCs voted it down.
The Best Government Money Can Buy
Near the end of the last Alberta election campaign, billionaire Darrel Katz gave a $430,000 donation to the PC party, which was lagging behind the Wildrose and almost out of money. The political donation limit in Alberta is $30,000, which is far more than in other provinces. The donation was divided among Katz’s family, business associates and companies. This retroactive trick was approved by the Chief Electoral Officer.
What does Bill 2 say about this type of chicanery? Well, nothing really. The NDP amendment changing the Elections Financing Act to prevent massive vote-buying donations was defeated by the PC majority.
Gorden Dirks’ Campaign Promise
During the Calgary Elbow by-election, Gordon Dirks, the then unelected Education Minister, approved modular classrooms for a school in the constituency. This was not consistent with the priority list established by the Calgary Board of Education. Complaints by the Wildrose and Alberta parties have been made to the Ethics Commissioner, but no judgement has yet been issued.
This kind of porkbarreling during an election is illegal in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but Bill 2 is silent on the practice. The NDP tried to amend the act, but it was again voted down by the government.
Peter Sandu’s “Appearance of Conflict of Interest”
MLA Peter Sandhu, who owns a house building company, was accused of a conflict of interest for aggressively lobbying senior executives within Service Alberta to change Alberta’s Builders’ Lien Act. Once again, then Ethics Commissioner Neil Wilkinson ruled against the complaint. The reason given was Sandu’s lobbying benefited all home builders, not just Sandu alone. And that wasn’t a conflict of interest in Wilkinson’s book. “Member Sandhu’s persistence in this matter created an appearance of conflict of interest but did not amount to an improper use of his office,” he wrote.
Is there any chance the Accountability Act tightens up this section? Sorry to disappoint folks, but no. However, the intrepid NDP caucus did try another amendment. Three guesses as to what the outcome was.
The Sky Palace
Remember the Sky Palace? Who could forget Redford’s suite among the clouds? Still, two former Infrastructure Ministers can’t seem to remember which one of them cancelled the project, since both Ric McIvor and Wayne Drysdale take credit. It seems that both memories are faulty, since it’s still going ahead, minus the bedroom furniture. The cost so far? $930,000 and counting.
Surely Bill 2 will put a stop to the back door manipulation of capital budgets that allowed this to go on? Well, it would have, except the NDP motion to compel the government to publicly disclose criteria for determining public infrastructure investment priorities, establish a clear public infrastructure priority list, and provide a detailed explanation for changing the priority list when that occurs was shot down by the tories.
Bill 2 fails the real test
A comparison of the provisions of Bill 2, the Accountability Act with the ethical transgressions and scandals of the Progressive Conservative government shows that the bill would not have dealt with most of the serious breaches in the last 5 years. If these sort of practices continue, the government will be able to get away with it. Again.
So when Jim Prentice says that Alberta will ensure the “highest ethical standards” and will “end the culture of entitlement”, he’s blowing smoke. The “new management” is much like the old one, saying one thing and doing another. If Albertans really want the highest ethical standards, they will have to start by changing the government.