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Rights + Justice

Kenney Wants a New Law. It’s His Latest Attack on Democracy

Alberta’s premier presses for rules to muzzle his critics and favour his wealthy backers. Behold Bill 81.

Gil McGowan 26 Nov 2021 |

Gil McGowan is the elected president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 175,000 Alberta workers from more than 20 unions in public and private sectors.

If there has been one constant for Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party since they formed government in Alberta 2½ years ago, it’s been their determination to demonize critics, silence dissent and make it harder for their opponents within the province to be heard by other Albertans.

The way the UCP tells it, Albertans who engage in advocacy around climate change, for example, aren’t concerned citizens — they’re “anti-Alberta” activists and pawns of shadowy “foreign-funded conspiracies” aimed at destroying Alberta’s oil and gas industry.

Similarly, citizens who speak out against UCP policies on things like school curriculum, coal development or COVID response aren’t Albertans with justifiable concerns and legitimate differences of opinion — they’re agents of the NDP simply trying to gain partisan advantage.

The UCP’s preoccupation with demonizing dissent isn’t just rhetorical; it has manifested itself in real-life legislation and policies.

It started with Bill 1, the so-called Infrastructure Defense Act. This bill was ostensibly about protecting pipeline projects from disruption, but it also quietly expanded the definition of “critical infrastructure” to include things like sidewalks and public squares.

The result is that you can now be arrested and/or fined in Alberta for participating in rallies, demonstrations or picket lines — actions that have long been seen as expressions of the democratic right to free speech.

Around the time they were introducing new ways to criminalize protest, the UCP also created the ominously named “Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.” (Seriously, that’s what they really called it.)

First the witch hunts

Much like the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s in the United States, the inquiry was launched as a clear effort to demonize and discredit citizens with progressive views.

Sen. McCarthy’s targets were progressive supporters of the hugely popular and successful New Deal. They were branded “unAmerican” and “Communist collaborators.” In the UCP’s case, the target was those who dared to raise questions about the role of Alberta-based fossil fuel development in climate change — the clear implication being that they are “unAlbertan.”

Thankfully, the UCP’s McCarthyesque strategy of political character assassination failed.

After two years, $3.5 million and multiple extensions, the head of the inquiry, accountant and UCP insider Steve Allan was forced to acknowledge that he could find no evidence that environmentalists had done anything wrong.

He even admitted that he felt uncomfortable with the “anti-Alberta” label that Kenney had attached to his inquiry and that the amount of “foreign money” spent on campaigns to oppose oilsands development ($54 million over 16 years) paled in comparison to the money deployed by the oil and gas industry in its own efforts to influence policy-makers.

Given the embarrassing failure of the inquiry to support the UCP’s big lie that Alberta’s oil industry is struggling because of “foreign-funded campaigns against it” (as opposed to the reality that the world has started the process of moving away from fossil fuels) you’d think that Kenney and his cohorts would reconsider their efforts to discredit and muzzle their critics. But instead, they’ve doubled down.

The Kenney government has now tabled the innocuous-sounding Elections Alberta Amendment Act, Bill 81.

In a news conference to explain the bill, UCP Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said it was about prohibiting “foreign influence” in Alberta’s political affairs (apparently, they can’t get enough of that rhetoric), “strengthening democracy” and “getting big money out of politics.”

But the bill literally does none of these things. In fact, in the truly Orwellian fashion that we’ve come to expect from the Kenney UCP, it does exactly the opposite.

For example, as experts in elections have pointed out, by removing all caps on donations to nomination campaigns, Bill 81 has created a backdoor mechanism that will allow unlimited amounts of money to flow into the coffers of political parties from people who can write big cheques.

And now the anti-democracy gag law

Just as alarmingly, the bill introduces what we in the Alberta labour movement are describing as an anti-democracy gag law, aimed at silencing civil society groups who want to run public advocacy campaigns that criticize the government.

Of course, the UCP’s main target with these outrageous new rules is the Alberta labour movement, which includes all of our unions and the Alberta Federation of Labour — our province’s oldest, largest and most vocal worker advocacy group.

One of our core jobs as democratically elected worker advocates is to hold governments accountable on issues of concern to working people. And we’re good at it. That’s why the UCP wants to shut us up and shut us down.

But Bill 81 isn’t only about muzzling unions. And it’s not really about stopping the Alberta Federation of Labour from running partisan ads during election campaigns (which, for the record, we have rarely done).

Instead, the impact of the bill is much broader. It will constrain ALL civil society groups (potentially from all points on the political spectrum). And it will impact ALL advocacy and issue campaigns, not just those aimed at supporting particular candidates or parties during elections.

Consider the rules contained in the bill (Section 9.1 sub 5.1 and 5.2):

There you have it. If a civil society group in Alberta wants to run a campaign that publicly criticizes the provincial government, they first have to register as a TPA; but their application to register as a TPA will be rejected if they have publicly criticized the provincial government.

Right out of the authoritarian playbook

This is the kind of authoritarian pretzel logic that the Kenney government is deploying against its own citizens. The only kind of civil society campaigns that will be tolerated by our Dear Leader are the ones that don’t explicitly criticize the government.

When you cut through all the UCP spin, it becomes clear that Bill 81 isn’t really about “strengthening democracy,” as the UCP has claimed. On the contrary, it is an attack on the rights of free speech and free association guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution.

Trying to suggest that all government critics are “agents” of other parties is a strategy used by authoritarian governments. So too is the establishment of a government commissar to determine what is acceptable “political speech” and what is not. None of these rules have any place in a true democracy.

Having said that, most Albertans would agree there is a need to do something about all the money that has been sloshing around Alberta’s political stage since the former NDP government banned corporate and union donations six years ago — a change we in the Alberta labour movement enthusiastically supported.

However, while we need rules to ensure that “big money” doesn’t distort elections, we also need to make a clear distinction between public campaigns run by legitimate civil society groups — whose job is to hold government to account — and purpose-built, American-style political action committees or PACs, which exist only to promote or oppose the election of a particular political party.

Bill 81 fails to make this crucial distinction, thereby turning a law that purports to protect democracy into a law that does the opposite. That’s why we’re urging Alberta civil society groups and concerned citizens to push back against Bill 81 and demand that it be withdrawn from the legislature or repealed if passed.

We can’t let Kenney and the UCP get away with this blatant attempt to muzzle citizens and take civil society out of our democracy.  [Tyee]

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