Leela Aheer & Brian Jean

Petition-based recall legislation has no place in a functioning, representative democracy.

The important words in the sentence above are “functioning” and “representative.”

“Functioning,” because if you don’t want democracy to work very well, there’s no better way to start than by introducing measures that, in effect, allow thugs and bullies to see how you vote.

“Representative,” because in our system of democracy — which is the only kind possible in a society with literally millions of citizens — we elect representatives and entrust them with the complex task of governing for a set period of time.

I mention this only because Alberta’s Wildrose Party — riding a wave of opposition among farmers to the Notley Government’s Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act — trotted out the notion of recall legislation, one of many bad American-style ideas in the party’s commodious tickle trunk of policies popular in Tea Party circles south of the Medicine Line.

The Wild Rose-hip Tea Party Opposition now led by former Harper Government MP Brian Jean can hardly be blamed for choosing this moment to grandstand a little by introducing Chestermere-Rocky View MLA Leela Aheer’s mischievous private member’s bill — Bill 206, the Recall Act — as a measure for “putting power back in the hands of voters,” although it would more likely have the opposite effect.

Under Aheer’s bill, the Opposition party said in a news release issued as the Bill 6 brouhaha bubbled, “Voters would be empowered to recall their MLAs and force a by-election.” Under her plan, it would require only 20 per cent of the voters in a riding to sign an official petition to start the recall ball rolling — an absurdly low threshold even if recall laws were a good idea, which they ain’t.

This would mean the a group of partisans of a party that lost an election fair and square could gin up a petition from their voters alone to force a frivolous by-election — during which all business except electioneering would come to a complete stop.

Aheer’s bill would require the signatures to be gathered within 60 days — no problem if the number of names required was under 3,500, as it would be in Alberta’s smallest riding by population, which not incidentally is held right now by the NDP. Petitions would require “a $5,000 application fee to prevent frivolous attempts.” As we all understand, $5,000 is chump change to powerful interests that want, just for one example, to keep making it hard for Alberta working people to be part of a union.

Other claims in the Wildrose release are risible — such as the preposterous notion such legislation would be used as a “check-and-balance against politicians who put their own self-interest above the interests of the people they represent” and that making it illegal for canvassers to be paid would prevent “well-financed groups or individuals having undue influence in any recall initiatives.”

Please! There are laws on the books now to deal with politicians who really act in their own interest, as opposed to their political interest, which is their right. In reality, it’s not self-interest but sound policy that is the target of this strategy, and well-financed groups and individuals on the political right already have many tools to unfairly manipulate the process, including their obedient allies in the mainstream media.

But the biggest risk is common thuggery — and there’s no hiding the fact in a small community that you’ve refused to sign a petition for a disruption of the democratic process that’s desired by a group of powerful people. That, of course, is why we have the secret ballot in our imperfect democracy.

And, yes, if such legislation led to a by-election rather than an outright recall, you might get a secret ballot that time. But who says in those circumstances you’d even make it to the polling station? If you think voting rights are just theoretical, you haven’t been reading your history, my friends.

If you want to see coercion in action, just try taking part in an effort to organize free collective bargaining in this province — at this moment still illegal despite court rulings to the contrary for employees of industrial-scale agricultural operations in Alberta — with an employer who doesn’t want to deal with a union. I have, and it’s not pretty.

Needless to say, it would be seen as a bonus by the Wildrose Party and its supporters if they can use this brouhaha to keep the NDP from introducing other labour law reforms desperately needed in Alberta. These include such measures as first-contract compulsory arbitration for employers who refuse to negotiate in good faith and compulsory certification of unions in workplaces where employers are prepared break the law to try to block them.

Regardless, to say recall legislation is “open to abuse” hardly covers it. Recall legislation invites abuse, indeed, it virtually guarantees it. By doing so, it subverts the delicate social contract on which democracy is balanced.

I have no doubt support for the anti-Bill-6 effort in rural areas is for the most part sincere, if often misguided. But I also suspect there has already also been a certain amount of bullying in some communities to build support for this cause.

Certainly there were threatening and aggressive characters circulating in the crowd at the Legislature earlier this week. One man came armed with a pitchfork. We can probably chalk this up to naiveté and over-enthusiasm, but I can guarantee you he would have been arrested if he’d turned up so equipped at a labour rally.

Not that Aheer’s bill has any chance of passing, thank goodness. It will suffer the same fate as most other symbolic and unserious private member’s bills.

Of course, once a Wildrose government was in power, such legislation would go over the side the instant it became a nuisance to the government that promised it — which, as Daveberta.ca author Dave Cournoyer pointed out yesterday in an excellent column on this topic, is exactly what happened last time we had recall legislation in Alberta.

At this point, the NDP needs to briskly pass an amended version of Bill 6, which despite rhetoric to the contrary by opponents with partisan motivations, Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson and Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier have fully committed to changing to answer what the farm community said were its principal objections to the bill.

The government should then move to the other labour legislation reforms Alberta needs. We already know the problems and the issues, so none of this requires long delays, a lot of study, or “consultation” designed as a tactic for stalling and showboating.

If the NDP were really as sinister and sneaky as their most overwrought opponents have been making them out to be, they would have done the obvious thing and held the debate for Bill 6 during harvest time. Just sayin’.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...