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How Will Notley Lead? Hint: Her First Event Was Open to Everyone

'Welcome to your Legislative Assembly,' Alberta premier tells crowd at outdoor swearing-in ceremony.

By Samantha Power 26 May 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Samantha Power is an Edmonton-based journalist and reporter/producer at the current affairs show, Alberta Primetime. Her writing appears in Vue Weekly where she served as news editor. Find her on Twitter @samantha_power.

It was more like a music festival than a government swearing-in ceremony.

The cabinet ministers of Alberta's first New Democrat government swore their oaths of office on the red-carpeted front steps of the provincial legislature Sunday as crowds gathered in the May sunshine. Many visitors were dressed in shorts and sandals, while kids played in the Legislature's reflective pool.

It was a far cry from previous swearing-in ceremonies, which have occurred far from public view, in boardrooms and government offices.

The weekend ceremony was an open, symbolic public demonstration underscoring the massive shift in direction that occurred May 5 when Rachel Notley's New Democrats won a majority government.

"Welcome to your Legislative Assembly," Notley emphasized in her first official speech as premier. After the ceremony, she led Alberta's new cabinet into the crowd to meet people.

"We've been invited and that's phenomenal," said Heather Wallace, one of thousands of onlookers.

"I was excited to see Rachel," said Donna Wright. "The way the election went said it all. It was time for a change in this province and we let it be known we were unhappy."

To many in the crowd, the outdoor, public ceremony was a powerful gesture, which may signal permanent changes to the way the government interacts with Alberta citizens.

Lorna Stefanick, who edited the book, Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada, suggested the government start the reforms at the provincial government's boards and agencies, where card-carrying Tories and donors have come to dominate.

These boards and committees provide an important avenue for citizen input, said Stefanick, a professor at Athabasca University. "But if it's comprised of party members explicitly or predominantly then it's a small portion of the population. The diversity of viewpoints is not there."

Notley has already committed to continuing a review of these boards and committees, something her predecessor started. A more significant gesture would be the appointment of non Progressive Conservative members, which will shift their discussions naturally, according to Stefanick.

Reverse whistleblower law

Others have a more specific wish list for the new government.

Shannon Stunden Bower, a board member with Evidence for Democracy, a federal non-partisan group advocating for evidence- based decision making, said Albertans should challenge the government to reverse whistleblower legislation enacted by the PCs, which failed to offer adequate protection and remedies for whistleblowers. Stunden Bower also called on the public to demand changes to the province's record on Freedom of Information requests, ranked as one of the worst in the country.

"The government is allowed to withhold a wide variety of information for a wide variety of reasons that distinguishes Alberta from jurisdictions with more robust FOI laws," said Stunden Bower. "This is information that would allow the public to make decisions about how we're using our public resources."

Larry Booi, chair of Public Interest Alberta, a non-partisan provincial group advocating democratic renewal, said he thinks the new government can improve on the Progressive Conservatives' track record on transparency, and hopes to see the New Democrats introduce campaign finance reform. The NDP and the Wildrose opposition, have committed to removing corporate and union donations to parties.

582px version of Crowd at Alberta Legislature
Crowds gathered outside the Alberta Legislature Sunday to watch the NDP government sworn in. Photo by Steven Hope.

"My concern is that in doing so they will take care of a very small aspect of the larger picture of the need for campaign and party finance reform," said Booi. He'd like to see a greater limit on individual campaign donations. Alberta is the only jurisdiction to allow donations by individuals to reach $30,000.

Beyond transparency, Booi would like to see the government reach out to citizens on policy issues. His suggestion: MLA town halls to be held in each riding, several times a year, with the government providing resources to ensure accessibility.

Hold town halls

"My MLA to my knowledge didn't hold a town hall and didn't hold any kind of a public meeting in the three years that he was the MLA," said Booi. "There was no attempt at public engagement because it was risky."

The NDP, while in opposition, ran province-wide town halls on housing, healthcare and land rights. With only a two- to four- member caucus most years, members made efforts on limited resources to hear what Albertans had to say.

"Engagement in opposition is to hear from the voices of people to shine a light on the voices government is not listening to," said Booi. "The reason, when you're government, is to make better policy. If you're genuinely trying to create engaged policy you better hear from these people."

Booi said it's up to the public and Premier Notley to ensure that changes occur.

"This is an opportunity that may not come along again in a generation," said Booi.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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