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Alberta’s Bill 68: Impact on Calgary, Edmonton municipal elections

Allowing publicly elected MLAs to campaign on referendum issues could impact Calgary’s upcoming municipal election, a Calgary political scientist said.

Alberta introduced Bill 68 in late April, paving the way for MLAs to take part in the debate, and express their views, on potential upcoming referendum questions.

Bill 68, the Election Statutes Amendment Act, 2021, was introduced in the Alberta legislature April 19.

“On important democratic matters, Albertans deserve to hear all viewpoints in the referendum process,” said Alberta Justice Minister and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu.

“This change ensures MLAs are afforded the right to speak their mind during a referendum, and that voters can hear from all sides to make an informed decision on important democratic matters.”

It’s expected that at least one referendum question will be tacked on to this October’s municipal election ballot. It’s likely to be Albertan’s desire to get a “fair deal” in equalization from Ottawa.

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said that typically referendum questions are impartial, searching for the opinion of citizens.

“This is not an impartial referendum to guide the opinion of Albertans. The government has a clear opinion, and they want the people of Alberta to agree with them,” he said.

“My guess is, (MLAs) are all going to speak on one side.”

Influence on a municipal election

Bratt said one of the reasons the questions are being held in conjunction with a municipal election is the cost savings. An election is already taking place and this simply tacks on a question to the ballot.

The other reason is because it drives a certain voter to the polls.

He likened it to the Republican political adviser Karl Rove’s strategy in the early 2000s. Rove brought people out in the state of Ohio for a ballot question on same-sex marriage.

Bush won that state. Had John Kerry won, he would have been president.

When you apply the strategy to Alberta, Bratt said, typically the folks who harbour anti-Ottawa, anti-equalization sentiment, they’re conservative.

At a time when Bratt said the province is often at odds with the city governments, and you’re going to have an unprecedented turnover on both Edmonton and Calgary city councils, it could draw out certain voters.

“(The provincial government) don’t like the mayors. They don’t like members of council. Not all members, but they basically see it as a form of opposition. So how can you change the complexion of council?,” Bratt said.

“How does that affect the election? I simply don’t know. There’s just going to be so many moving parts here six months out.”

Backfire, especially considering current public sentiment

When asked during a press conference right after the Bill’s introduction, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said it will be hard to get voters out just for a referendum question.

He said if that’s the intent, it will backfire very badly.

“It’s not that people are going to come to the polls because they’re mad about the referendum and then therefore vote for some council candidate or the other,” Nenshi said.

“The opposite will happen. People will come to the polls to vote for their council candidate, and if they’re in a particularly bad mood about the province, the province may not get the results they’re looking for in the referenda.”

He said for these debates, the province shouldn’t be looking to influence the decision one way or another.

“If you’re a provincial politician it looks pretty obvious that you don’t actually care what the public thinks and I’m sure that the province would never, ever have a referendum where they don’t actually care what the public thinks,” the mayor said.

“That would be wrong.”