The race for the leadership of the United Conservative Party of Alberta reached an important milestone last week with the passing of the deadline for new members to join. Members will start mailing in their ballots Sept. 2, with the results to be announced Oct. 6 – just seven weeks from now.
Which means we are potentially seven weeks away from a constitutional crisis, the likes of which this country has not seen. Because the front-runner for the UCP leadership is Danielle Smith, and because the centrepiece of her campaign is a wholly unworkable, flagrantly unconstitutional and massively destabilizing proposal called the Alberta Sovereignty Act.
Should she win the race, she will not just become the UCP leader, but the premier, and should she become premier, she has promised that the Alberta Sovereignty Act will be a “Day 1” priority. So this is no longer an abstract idea or academic fancy: it has very real prospects of becoming law – if law is the right word for a bill that would mount a deliberate frontal assault on the whole concept.
In brief, the bill, as described in the Free Alberta Strategy, a revolutionary tract drafted by a trio of cranks last year and embraced by Ms. Smith as her own, would presume to empower the government of Alberta to ignore any federal laws it deemed invasive of provincial jurisdiction or contrary to Alberta’s interests.
Doubtless the federal courts would have something to say about this. So the bill also purports to give the province the power to ignore their rulings. But the drafters of the Free Alberta Strategy, in their wisdom, could see it would not end there. What if, for example, the provincial courts agreed with their federal brethren? So a companion bill would transfer the power to appoint all judges in the province from the federal to the provincial government.
Might all of this attract the interest of federal law enforcement? No problem: the RCMP would be expelled from Alberta, in favour of a provincial police force. Perhaps the federal government might object? But the Alberta government would have seized much of its revenues. Provincial government employees would agree to send their taxes to the province, rather than the feds, as would provincial businesses.
Could the feds still collect these through the banking system? Not after the province had set up a network of Alberta-based financial institutions. To which individual Albertans, not content with risking prosecution for federal tax evasion, would naturally flock to deposit their life savings. You know: as a protest against equalization.
How much of this broader agenda would form part of Ms. Smith’s program of government is unclear. But just the Alberta Sovereignty Act, and the principle that underlies it – nullification is the technical term – would be revolution enough.
The notion that a provincial government could simply ignore whatever federal laws it does not like, or assume whatever federal powers it desired, unilaterally, is admittedly not without precedent. The same fantasy formed the basis of two generations of sovereigntist dogma in Quebec.
But at least Quebec’s separatists declined to attempt their coup d’état without first seeking a mandate from the people in a referendum. Whereas for Ms. Smith, it would apparently be sufficient to launch the province into this legal no man’s land with the votes of a few thousand party members.
It should not need explaining why it’s a bad idea for governments to abandon the rule of law. Without the law, there is no order, and without order there is no freedom, but only a war of all against all. If the government claims the right to ignore some laws, what’s to stop it from ignoring others? If it is all right for the provincial government to pick and choose which laws to obey, why may not others assert the same right?
The bill would inevitably be challenged in court, and since one of the premises of the bill is to place Alberta outside the reach of the federal legal system, it may be assumed a Smith government would defy any ruling against it. Again, even the Quebec separatists did not go this far.
So the idea that this would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis is hardly far-fetched. Indeed, the proponents of the Free Alberta Strategy have publicly declared that that is their aim. The bill is unconstitutional, Free Alberta Strategy co-author and University of Calgary professor Barry Cooper freely confessed in an op-ed piece earlier this summer. “That is the whole point.”
Provoke a crisis, runs the theory, and the rest of Canada can be brought to heel by the sheer force of Albertan will. This bit of half-baked pseudo-Leninism is now the central plank of the province’s probable next premier. God help us all.
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