The recent pushback from Albertans against their government over Bill 6 shows that even against the odds, the people of our province have the ability to stand up for themselves when their backs are up against the wall.
People make mistakes, and governments are made up of people, so governments are bound to make mistakes. What matters is how we deal with and learn from those mistakes. Ralph Klein was famous for regularly making mistakes, but even more so for his genuine apologies.
By contrast, the NDP made a colossal mistake with Bill 6, but just ploughed ahead with it, critics be damned.
The original form of Bill 6 would have allowed OH&S bureaucrats to come onto people’s private, residential property without a warrant to ensure that everything met government regulations. The original Bill 6 would have required that unpaid farm kids would have to be insured under the Workers Compensation Board.
Farmers and ranchers immediately began to ask serious questions of the government and express worry that the bill was being rushed through the legislature without any consultation. These farmers and ranchers were immediately brushed off by the premier as extremists who were opposed to farm safety.
Right after the bill was tabled in the legislature, virtually every provincial media outlet endorsed Bill 6 before reading it; after all, who was opposed to farm safety?
Almost immediately, my offices in Strathmore, Brooks and in Edmonton were all swamped by emails and phone calls from constituents who wanted me to fight Bill 6 on their behalf. It became quickly apparent that Bill 6 did much more than was advertised by the government.
The Wildrose Caucus and I quickly understood that even if the bill was popular with the media and (for the time being) in the big cities, it was the right thing to fight it.
We were not opposed to legislation that improved farm safety, but we were opposed to any bill that had not consulted with the people it affected most: farmers and ranchers.
Farmers came out to rallies in Lethbridge, Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Edmonton by the thousands. They had a simple message to the government: “Listen!”
The NDP scrambled to hold a few last minute “town-hall” meetings where a minister or bureaucrat would explain how the legislation would have to be complied with. They were not intended to be a forum of farmers and ranchers to tell the government what the legislation should look like.
The NDP initially refused to hold any town halls whatsoever in our constituency of Strathmore-Brooks, despite being one of the most agriculture intensive constituencies in the entire country.
Between 500 and 600 constituents came out to the Bassano town hall meeting to discuss Bill 6 with me and several other Wildrose MLAs who also attended. To his credit, the Minister of Agriculture, Oneil Carlier also attended. The message from constituents to the minister was clear: “Kill Bill 6.”
Albertans in Calgary and Edmonton began to stand with us against an attack on the family farm, and the refusal of the government to listen to reason.
Unlike many in our government, the majority of Albertans know and appreciate the cultural values of farm life and the history of this province are tightly weaved together.
Once the NDP made clear that it would not put the legislation on hold until the spring in order to consult, my Wildrose colleagues and I decided to fight the bill with every tool at our disposal. In short, that meant that we debated the bill exhaustively, often going well into the early hours of the morning in the legislature, and providing proactive amendments to have the bill sent back to committee.
Despite condemning the practice as extremely undemocratic while they were in opposition, the NDP quickly invoked “debate closure,” which more a less just shuts down the legislature and automatically passes the bill. We did everything legal within our means to delay the bill, but in the end, the NDP rammed it through.
Political pressure on the NDP was strong enough however to force them to concede some amendments, but not to slow the bill down and consult with farmers and ranchers first. Still, those amendments did significantly water down the bill from its original form. Namely: the bill will no longer require family members from having mandatory WCB coverage, and the bill no longer allows OH&S bureaucrats into your home to conduct inspections without a warrant.
There are still huge problems with the bill, and if Albertans elect a Wildrose government in the future, I am committed to thoroughly reviewing the legislation. But in the end, Albertans pushed back against their government, and to some degree, won.
I truly hope that the premier and the NDP have learned a lesson about consulting with Albertans first and when to put the brakes on something that isn’t well thought out first; but if they have not, you can count on the Wildrose to remind them again.