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Alberta premier says she’s open to sovereignty bill amendments to add clarity

EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says her sovereignty bill that grants her cabinet unfettered power to rewrite laws behind closed doors without legislature approval was never intended to do that.

Smith told CBC Newsworld in an interview Friday she is open to making amendments to Bill 1 to clarify that any laws her cabinet changes or drafts will come back to the legislature for debate and a vote.

“I think maybe we have a little lack of clarity,” Smith said when pressed on why her bill as currently drafted needs to grant her and her cabinet emergency-type powers to unilaterally rewrite legislation in order to combat what it deems invasive federal policies and laws.

Smith agreed that while cabinet has the power to make regulations and other rules that grow out of laws, the laws themselves have a higher bar.

“We never intended for it to apply to statutes. Statutes do have to come back to the legislature for approval,” said Smith.

“And if there is any statutory change that (we) would have to make (under this bill) coming out of these motions, we’ll make it clear that is the case.”

University of Alberta constitutional law professor Eric Adams, responding to her remarks, said: “If (Smith) is proposing that they change the legislation to remove the capacity of (cabinet) to amend other acts as a result of a triggering motion, that’s a positive development for the legislation.

“It suggests they’ve heard enough criticism that they (now) need to change course.”

The bill has faced widespread attacks for the provisions that would grant Smith and her cabinet the power to rewrite laws and direct provincially legislated or funded entities — like municipalities, police forces, health regions, post-secondary institutions, and school boards — to reject federal laws.

Critics say such broad, unchecked powers are a threat to the checks and balances that underpin a healthy democracy.

Since Smith introduced the bill Tuesday, she and her cabinet members have been in lockstep, rebuffing such criticism by claiming the bill does specify the laws they change would still have to be confirmed by the house.

Legal and constitutional scholars confirm there’s nothing in the bill that says that.

The bill has been characterized by Smith as a deliberately confrontational tool to reset the relationship with a federal government she accuses of interfering in constitutionally protected areas of provincial responsibility from energy development to health care.

Under the bill, cabinet would decide when Ottawa is interfering in Alberta’s jurisdiction through a law, policy or program or through a looming federal initiative it believes may cause harm.

Cabinet would send a resolution to the legislative assembly spelling out the nature of the harm and the remedies to fix it.

If the legislature gives its approval by majority vote, that is where its involvement ends and cabinet takes over. It could use the extraordinary powers of the bill to rewrite legislation and direct provincial agencies to ignore federal laws based on what cabinet deems whatever is “necessary or advisable.”

The bill gives cabinet wide latitude on how to interpret the resolution it receives from the assembly. It says cabinet “should” follow the direction of the house, but doesn’t mandate it.

Alberta’s Opposition NDP has called the bill an undemocratic power grab.

“This bill gives the premier the so-called Henry VIII power to write laws behind closed doors with zero input from this assembly,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley told question period Thursday.

Smith has delivered a mixed message on how the bill would ultimately be used.

On Tuesday, her office sent documentation to reporters saying the government hopes to use it in the spring, but that same day she told a news conference it’s a last-resort bill and she hopes to never use it.

Indigenous leaders have criticized the bill as heavy-handed and divisive. Business groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, warn that its legal uncertainty is not good for investment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2022.


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