Friday, October 06, 2006


One slogan we have yet to see from the Progressive Conservative leadership candidates is “restore democracy to Alberta”. It is not surprising – the leadership race itself lacks some of the basic electoral oversights most democracies would insist upon.

There are no controls over how much can be spent by an individual candidate or his campaign. Nor are their rules restricting the source of funds wihin Province – funds can be raised in other Provinces, though there are limits on individual donations. Membership of the party is the basis for “winning”, so candidates are measured by memberships sold – and some individuals have more than one membership (the PC web site actually encourages multiple membership purchases). The old slogan “vote early and vote often” seems to apply. Not exactly a role model for an advanced democracy.

But the democratic deficit is not just within the PC party, it is in the Province. Our legislature sits for a very short period of time – making it difficult to hold ministers to account and to seriously debate legislation. It needs to sit for longer and to have a more focused, rigorous agenda.

Too many decisions are processed through regulation passed through cabinet but not debated in the house. More needs to done through serious debate and disclosure through legislation, white papers and policy review. The fact that tuition policy for post secondary education can be decided without debate in the House demonstrates that the house is not taken seriously.

Standing policy committees are weak – simply subsets of caucus pushing the party line. We need to reform these and make them all party committees with tough powers to hold ministers and their officials to account and to challenge the performance, policy and practice of Government. We will know these are successful when they begin to report on policy and practice as strongly and effectively as the Auditor General does on value for money.

Business plans from government ministers vary greatly in their focus, clarity and value. Strengthened standing policy committees should challenge these, demand more and hold ministry’s to account against them. They should also receive monthly scorecards showing how the Departments are doing against these plans – scorecards that should be made public.

Alberta also needs whistleblower legislation that protects public servants who find it necessary, as a last resort, to blow the whistle on malpractice, inefficiency and deception. Public servants are dedicated, skilled and committed individuals who take their work seriously and wish to do public good. When they encounter serious issues, they should tackle them with all the professional skills and resources at their disposal. But if there is something seriously wrong, they should be able to speak out.

Access to government information has improved in Alberta during the last five years – look at what we know about the use of the Government jet. It could be improved further, reducing the power of Government to declare subjects “off limits” to the press and others seeking information and requiring a faster turn-around for this information.

The public expects tough controls over spending and to receive quarterly reports on the financial performance of Government. We should also expect quarterly reports on the performance of Government against its business plans – what is working, what is not, what issues are emerging, what challenges are being faced. For example, reports on the labour shortage, on progress on environmental issues or on the governments own staffing issues – all would be examples of a Government making its work transparent, open to debate.

Public consultation on such things as land use, environment, education need also to be more rigorous. Groups wishing to engage in consultation should have access to quality information, “what if” models being used within Departments for planning and be able to work with public servants to access quality data. Such access is currently varied and needs to be improved.

Alberta faces many challenges. This is a tipping point for our future. It would be good to have confidence that a new leader saw democracy as a key feature of our future. Right now, its open to debate.

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