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Alberta's Bill 20: Municipal oversight or provincial overreach?

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks in Edmonton on Wednesday April 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks in Edmonton on Wednesday April 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
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This spring, the UCP government introduced an innocuous-sounding piece of legislation called the "Municipal Affairs Amendment Act."

But Bill 20 is anything but benign for most of Alberta's municipal politicians.

Many are stomping mad about it.

The bill covers a broad swath of changes to how municipalities operate, including modifications to municipal campaign financing, introducing municipal political parties in Calgary and Edmonton and providing mechanisms to grease the wheels for new not-for-profit housing.

The bill also empowers the provincial cabinet to strike down municipal bylaws it feels are inappropriate and remove elected members of local councils where and when it feels it is warranted.

As you can imagine, local politicians aren't happy.

"An attack on local democracy," "authoritarian" and "provincial overreach" are just some of the cries heard from council chambers across the province.

For his part, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver – himself a former Calgary councillor – has assured there will be more consultation with municipal leaders on these measures, and they are intended "only as a last resort" and in "very limited circumstances."

Cold comfort for Alberta's mayors, reeves and councillors.

But all this handwringing is about a power the province already possesses de facto.

When we think of government in Canada, we think of three levels – federal, provincial and municipal – but one of these things is not like the others.

Constitutionally speaking, municipalities don't exist.

As the lawyers like to say, they are a "creature of the province" created by provincial fiat, an obscure (to most) piece of provincial legislation called the Municipal Government Act.

In theory, the province could dissolve the City of Calgary, for instance – introduce a bill, pass it in the legislature, get the lieutenant-governor's rubber stamp and presto, no more City of Calgary.

It would take a few weeks, but technically speaking, it's doable.

Bill 20's provisions merely transfer this authority from the legislature to the cabinet.

No more "messy" legislating; a simple order in council will do.

Call it a "blanket rezoning" of the province's power vis-à-vis municipalities, if you like.

With Bill 20, the Danielle Smith government may have pulled back the hammer on the pistol pointed at municipalities, but in truth, it's a pistol it has always held.

Pulling the trigger, though, would carry serious political consequences for any provincial government.

It would need to be seen as justified and would be a weighty political calculation for them.

A file photo of Edmonton City Hall.

That political calculation is likely at play with the UCP government's ramped-up rhetoric on municipal authority, with Calgary and Edmonton in the crosshairs.

Calgary's mayor and council are deeply unpopular.

The majority – not all members, but generally enough – seem as attracted to controversial and unpopular measures as metal is to a magnet.

Climate emergency.

Blanket rezoning.

An almost eight per cent tax increase.

A single-use "bag bylaw."

Residents, for the most part, prioritize none of these.

Another dust-up between the province and the City of Calgary came when council recently voted 9-6 to extend voting rights to include those with "permanent resident" immigration status.

That resolution would still need to go to Alberta Municipalities, the group that lobbies on behalf of municipalities, which in turn could take it to the province.

But the public appetite is weak.

According to our most recent provincial polling in late April, this measure is decidedly unpopular.

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of Albertans are opposed to extending the franchise to permanent residents (51 per cent strongly), compared to 32 per cent who like the idea (12 per cent strongly).

It fares nominally better in Calgary, with 59 per cent opposed and 35 per cent in favour.

The Alberta legislative building in an undated photo. (CTV News Edmonton)

And, why bother? McIver said all along the province is having none of it, leaving the city's move as nothing but a thumbs up in the face of a government, which has a very firm thumbs down.

The most important intergovernmental relationship for any municipality, particularly Alberta's big cities, is with the province.

Establishing an open and respectful relationship is key, regardless of the day's personalities or partisan stripe.

That doesn't mean local councils must bow to the province, be their pals or even avoid fighting with them – it's also a political calculation for municipal leaders.

Given the power relationship, city politicians never want to surprise the province, and if you're going to fight with them, select positions that are both important and supported by your own voters.

Is Bill 20 oversight or overreach?

Both and neither – many of its provisions are highly unlikely to ever be used.

But it is a not-so-subtle reminder from the province to municipalities about their place in the world.

Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ, a Canadian-based market and public opinion research firm, and a partner in the consulting firm Integrated. Strategic. Partners.

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