A recent column reported that in his recent report “Environment and Parks —Systems to Manage Grazing Leases,” Alberta Auditor General, Merwan Saher, was surprised to find 1999 Alberta legislation that was passed by the legislature but never proclaimed into law, which would effectively have ended Cowboy Welfare and had the big public land grazing lease bucks go to the people of Alberta where they belong.
The AG confessed to being flabbergasted, because the unproclaimed law would have dealt with what he considers to be a fundamental principle for all Albertans: that personal financial benefit should not derive from public assets.
What is this all about? Readers will be wondering.
Let me describe the best and worst example I can ever remember of Alberta democracy in action and democracy denied.
Back in the late ‘90s, after two or three previous public hearings on Alberta public land, the major issues were still festering, open wounds, so the government of the day decided to hold one final, definitive public hearing to find out what Albertans thought of their public land and what they believed should be done with it.
The late Tom Thurber, PC MLA for Drayton Valley, and then Drayton Valley-Calmar, a farmer, was appointed by the Cabinet to conduct and chair public hearings into public land matters. Albertans by the thousands, personally and through their representatives, were heard at sessions of the hearing in many Alberta communities. As I recall, the public land leaseholders were not well represented at the public hearings; they prefer private hearings and other methods, as we shall see.
In due course, Mr. Thurber, who surely went straight to heaven, produced a superb report accurately describing what Albertans told him about their beloved public land. It is hard for me to find now, but the Premier and her minister of Environment, Parks, and Sustainable Resource Development should find the Thurber Report and study it.
Basically, the report’s conclusions were the same as the ignored reports on the two or three public hearings on public land that preceded it: public land is a priceless public asset that should never be sold, only leased, or licensed in appropriate circumstances; the public should always be assured of access to its public land for lawful purposes; public land should be much better managed, protected and administered for the benefit, including better economic benefit, of all Albertans.
So incisive was his report, that Mr. Thurber was assigned the additional task of seeing to the preparation and introduction into the Legislature of a bill making the changes necessary to make the public land wishes of Albertans come true, including fundamentally changing the way leaseholders would be compensated for energy drilling on public land grazing leases, bringing Alberta’s law closer to those in Saskatchewan and B.C.
Thus, in 1999, Mr. Thurber introduced into the Legislature the 21 – page omnibus Bill 31, “The Agricultural Dispositions Statutes Amendment Act, 1999,”which the elected representatives of all Albertans (63 PCs, 18 Liberals and 2 NDP) passed after the requisite three readings and study by the Committee of the Whole.
The bill was to become law upon the formality of proclamation, or “Royal Assent,” i.e., being signed by the Lieutenant – Governor.
The day after the bill passed in the Legislature, Premier Klein was scheduled to attend a Western Premiers’ Conference at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.
On that grey and rainy day a posse from the ranching community rode in on horseback to send a message to the Premier, lining the museum entrance and holding placards with multi – messages against Bill 31, particularly that Klein was “Biting the Hand that Fed Him.”
Having been forewarned, Klein, our famously cowardly lion, didn’t show up, and the posse dispersed and dismounted.
However, this oater — charade succeeded in its lobbying intent and Bill 31, a law expressing the will of Albertans and their elected representatives, has never been proclaimed, received royal assent and thus given the force of law.
A premier with guts would have been there, locked and loaded, faced down the posse and told them to ride off into the sunset because the people and their elected representatives had spoken and wanted the grazing lease fiasco ended, and the hand indeed well and truly bitten that had for far too long been groping in and picking the pockets and purses of Albertans.
The Premier might even have added that the sole “hand” that truly feeds him and all Albertans is the ninety percent of Alberta’s ranchers and farmers who are not of or among the ten percent elitist and privileged, “landed gentry” who hold grazing leases and believe themselves entitled to the money and subsidies that come with them.
That non-democratic competitive advantage, that basic unfairness is just the start of a long list of what is wrong with public land administration in Alberta, alluded to by the AG, and particularly its grazing lease program.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.