Albertans will have a few questions to answer on the ballot during this fall’s municipal election.
On Thursday, Premier Jason Kenney announced that Albertans will consider referendums about daylight saving time in addition to federal equalization during the Oct. 18 municipal election.
That’s in addition to a referendum question on voting on members of the Senate to represent Alberta.
Kenney said the equalization referendum will “maximize our leverage as we fight for a fair deal on all fronts and fight for a strong Alberta economy.”
But Albertans will not yet be voting on whether to have an Alberta pension plan or provincial police force replacing the RCMP.
Finance Minister Travis Toews said LifeWorks (formerly Morneau Sheppell) is studying the costs, benefits and structure of a theoretical provincial pension program, adding the idea has “great promise.”
“It’s critically important that we do our work to ensure that Albertans are well informed, so that they can make a well-informed choice when we take this to referendum,” Toews said.
Provincial police could be a rural vote
Justice Minister and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu said a similar study on a provincial police force is also underway.
“Transforming Alberta’s law enforcement system in this way would entail many operational logistical and financial details, which is why we are taking the time to continue looking into it as part of determining what the next steps would look like,” Madu said Thursday.
The premier said the results of that study by Price Waterhouse Cooper will be released “in due course.”
“We acknowledge that there’s a need for much deeper consultation with First Nations and with municipalities, given how much the consequences would have for them,” Kenney said.
Kenney said there hasn’t been a final decision about whether to put the provincial police force question to citizens, and whether all Albertans would have a say.
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“One possibility would be to invite only Albertans who are policed by the RCMP and who would be directly affected by this to vote on it,” Kenney said, citing that possibility under the Referendum Act.
Opposition leader Rachel Notley said the premier was “playing very cynical political games” in floating that idea, calling it “undemocratic.”
“Moving to a provincial police force will cost all Albertans more and so all Albertans should have the opportunity to vote on it,” Notley said Thursday. “And the degree to which those police forces work together also has consequences.”
What are the questions?
Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish noted that the initial three-week survey on daylight saving time in 2019 was met with more than 141,000 responses from across the province. He highlighted concerns about business impacts from airports and the tourism sector, and from pro-sports organizations with national broadcasting agreements.
“This is one reason why it is so important that we enable all Albertans to have a say in how Alberta observes time,” Glubish said. “It is also a critical reason why we should not rush into anything, but give businesses and families time to prepare and adjust.”
What the exact question on daylight saving time looks like will be announced later in the summer, Glubish said.
But the question on equalization was approved by legislature on June 15: “Should section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 – Parliament and the government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments – be removed from the Constitution?”
Notley said she agreed with the idea of changing daylight saving time, but noted that the premier doesn’t seem to be putting his focus on the “real issues: job creation, economic diversification, promoting renewable energy, protecting our health care, protecting our education.”
“We are going to be spending tens of millions of dollars on asking Albertans to vote on something where nobody in Ottawa is actually interested in the answer to that question,” the Alberta NDP leader said.
Read more: Kenney says next step on Alberta pension plan coming in spring, but no change without referendum
On Feb. 1, Calgary city council voted to add a plebiscite question to this fall’s ballot about fluoridation, but declined adding a question about getting a “fair deal” for the city from the province in a mid-June meeting.
The question to be posed in Calgary will be: “Are you in favour of reintroducing fluoridation of the municipal water supply?”
‘Monumental confusion’ for voters
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said adding all of these issues to a municipal election that would normally only be choosing mayor, councillors and school trustees will result in “monumental confusion” and more voters could come out looking to cast a vote on a specific item.
“You may have much bigger voter turnout, but a much bigger voter turnout on one issue or one election,” Bratt told Global News. “What do you do with the rest of your ballot? If you’re only there to vote on equalization, what do you do in the mayor’s race? What do you do in the council race? If you’re there only to vote for the mayor? What do you do about fluoridation and equalization?
“So you may get more people turning out, but are they interested in, have they researched, have they thought about all of the other elections that are on the ballot?”
Barry Morishita, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, said he’s disappointed with the move. He says the province isn’t addressing concerns from the towns and cities that represent 85 per cent of Alberta’s population.
“We want local government and local elections to be about local issues and, at a time when there’s some really big decisions to be made as we go forward with the municipal elections this October, it’s unfortunate that we’re going to have this static and the noise about those other three questions on the ballot,” Morishita said.
Morishita, who also serves as the mayor of Brooks, said municipal councils are facing pressures from many sides on how to provide services to their constituents.
“We’ve had our funding cut from the provincial government, we’ve had provincial policing costs in small communities (and) a number of cost pressures put on us. And at the same time, we’re feeling the same pinch in terms of taxation,” Morishita told Global News. “The election is time to have a proper discernment about that.”
Another concern raised for some rural municipalities is the added costs of organizing elections in the fall when normally many of the councils would be acclaimed or, in the case of summer communities running elections now, would have to mount another election in the fall.
“Those kinds of things aren’t fair when we’re pressed for resources,” the Brooks mayor said. “We’re just maxed out here at the municipal level and it would have been nice for them to listen to us.”
With the spectre of one on the horizon, Bratt said a federal election could weigh on Albertans’ decisions at the local polls.
“Normally, if you have a federal election a month or six weeks ahead of a municipal race, no one cares because they’re unconnected. Now they’re explicitly connected.”
Upper house reforms in place
Unlike the House of Commons, the Senate represents Canadians by region and not population. Twenty-four senators represent each of the regions set out in the Constitution: Ontario, Quebec, Western Canada and the Maritimes.
Of Alberta’s share of six senators, two of those seats are currently vacant.
During the prime minister’s visit to Calgary on July 5, Justin Trudeau said that the federal government has moved to a non-partisan, merit-based system for would-be senators.
“Canadians who have served their communities of all different backgrounds right across the country can apply online, can apply through our open process, where their candidacies will be evaluated by a group of independent panelists, who will make recommendations on who should go to the Senate,” Trudeau said at the time.
Municipal elections will be held across Alberta on Monday, Oct. 18.
–with files from Adam MacVicar, Global News