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The accountability ship has sailed, Bill 2 notwithstanding; Jim Prentice and Ralph Klein compared

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Ralph Klein

Accountability legislation?

Oh, well … that changes everything!

All sarcasm aside, people, I think that ship has sailed, actually …

Bill 10, legislation designed to make it hard to form gay-straight alliances in schools, having turned into an embarrassing flop that won't go away, Premier Jim Prentice yesterday introduced Bill 2, a law that in the words of the headline on the government's news release, "aims to improve accountability and restore trust with Albertans."

Known as the Alberta Accountability Act, it's legislation promised by Prentice back when he was running for the Progressive Conservative Party leadership to clean up the horrible impression left by former premier Alison Redford, she of the Skypalace, Fakes on a Plane and First-Class-to-Africa scandals.

There are those cynics, of course, who think the problem with the Alberta PCs may run a little deeper than just Redford. And there are naïve idealists like your blogger who don't think a provincial politician should need a detailed rulebook to spell out what's ethical -- or, dangerously, what by omission therein is allowed, whether or not it can pass a sniff test.

That said, this is Alberta, and it wouldn't come as a complete shock if a lot of voters took the bait and came to the conclusion everything has now been fixed, and Prentice fixed it.

Media coverage focused on the fact the bill would double the time government officials were required to wait before they could become professional lobbyists -- from a paltry six months to a paltry one year. Well, a person’s got to make a living.

The new rules are also supposed to mean that political staffers will never again get the same whopping payouts that went to Redford's top advisers when the stuff hit the fan and the former premier was toppled in a caucus coup. Severance pay for political staff will be capped at six months.

Unsaid in all this is that this particular rule change is likely to require increases in the salaries top political advisors are paid -- since some of them are actually worth the money they can demand from their bosses.

What's more, some of these changes turn out to be not particularly meaningful because instead of being part of the law, they are written down only in a secret Treasury Board directives that can be amended at the government's whim.

This could happen, say, right after winning a majority government -- and without citizens like you needing to know a thing about it.

Very significantly, also in this semi-secret category, will be the rules that supposedly eliminate controversial sole-source contracts "in all but exceptional circumstances."

Alert readers will remember how, in the wake of successful negotiations with the government by several public service unions in 2013 and this year, Redford's solemn promise to freeze the salaries of the top management officials in the civil service was quietly broken by premier pro tem Dave Hancock weeks before Prentice took over.

The government will assure us no such a thing will happen again with the Accountability Act in place, especially now that Prentice is the premier, and perhaps it won't.

But as Wildrose Opposition Finance Critic Rob Anderson told the CBC, "if you're going to have transparency, if you're going to have accountability, things are going to all be done in public, above-board, it's important to have these things in legislation."

Citizens who are paying attention are entitled to ask, What's really changed?

Meanwhile, speaking of Bill 10 as we were, Alberta's mainstream media seems to have decided Prentice deserves a pass for his spectacular GSA fumble. A recent political commentary lauded the premier for his "courage" in "pausing" his controversial Bill 10.

The author, influential Edmonton Journal political columnist Graham Thomson, compared Prentice's non-Parliamentary stall to Premier Ralph Klein's decision in March 1998 to drop Bill 26, which would have overridden the rights of 2,844 Albertans who between 1928 and 1972 were forcibly sterilized as children and adults because they were ruled by the Alberta Eugenics Board to be "mental defectives."

Klein's bill, which was introduced on March 10, 1998, would have used the "Notwithstanding Clause" of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prevent surviving victims of the eugenics board's dictates from going to court, and would have limited the compensation they could receive to between $50,000 and $150,000.

But when the word got out that day that the government of Alberta intended to "opt out" of the Charter’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for some of Alberta's most vulnerable and mistreated citizens, I have been told by people who were there that the phone lines into the premier's office nearly melted with the fury of hundreds of ordinary Albertans.

Many Albertans were also shocked and deeply troubled to learn their government had right into the 1970s been victimizing some of the province's most marginalized citizens with a policy that reminded them of another government that came to power in the 1930s in Europe.

The next day, March 11, 1998, Klein hastily withdrew the bill, acknowledged his error and later issued a public apology to the eugenics board's victims for what had been done to them.

That same year, Mel Graham of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities wrote that "Ralph Klein's real mistake was in his presumption that the kind of amorality private insurance companies routinely use to conduct their business should become the operational standard for the behaviour of provincial governments."

This is fair. Still, you have to give Klein credit for showing genuine courage in two ways:

First, when he proposed the bill it was clear on the face of it that he intended to use the Notwithstanding Clause to deprive a group of citizens of their Charter right. In other words, there was no particular hidden agenda. It was right out there for all to see, and to react to as they saw fit -- as, indeed, Albertans unequivocally did.

Second, when he heard what Albertans thought of "his government's promotion of the me-first, dog-eat-dog society," as Graham put it, he yanked that bill to fast you could barely see it.

Prentice, by contrast, introduced Bill 10 to block Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman's private member's Bill 202, the purpose of which was to require all publicly supported schools to permit gay-straight alliances to operate in safety on their premises. "Pausing" the bill changed nothing, because it had already knocked Bill 202 from the Legislature's agenda.

We can argue about what he was trying to achieve -- woo social conservative voters back from the Wildrose Party, promote the fiction that the existence of GSAs would somehow be in conflict with "family rights," make it easier to divert tax dollars to private religious schools, or perhaps all three.

But there is simply no way this manoeuvre can be characterized as courageous.

If Prentice wants to show some courage, he should withdraw Bill 10 and allow the Legislature to vote on Bill 202.

That's not very likely, of course, because it would demonstrate to voters the PC caucus contains some pretty primitive characters, as does the caucus of their principal competition on the right.

I knew Mr. Klein. The man had his flaws. But to borrow a phrase, Premier, you're no Ralph Klein!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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