Where did Premier Ed Stelmach’s government go so horribly wrong that a 40-year, cozy rule the Progressive Conservatives enjoyed in Alberta is now in shambles — and seriously threatened?
Political analysts and armchair observers can assess the situation with theories until the cows come home.
But it’s simple what went wrong: Albertans are sick and tired of lack of representation and accountability.
Worse yet, the rural voters who the Tories have always turned to for support are revolting. They are bitter over legislation they claim has robbed them of property rights.
Many rural Albertan landowners believe that Bills 19, 24, 36 and 50 have stripped them of any say on what activities are allowed on their properties. The acts, they further claim, are tailored to the needs of the energy industry, affording it unlimited rights to explore, drill and do whatever is necessary to extract the oil and gas to maintain high profit margins.
And further, landowners complain, the acts slam the door on public hearings that, in the past, allowed a forum to question energy proposals.
Bill 24 (Carbon Capture and Storage Statutes Amendment Act), for example, allows a yet-to-be-proven technology that takes carbon dioxide created by industry, liquefies it, then stores it in underground porous rock in rural Alberta.
Central Alberta farmer Don Bester, a member of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, says the legislation “removes all of our subsurface rights.”
Then there’s Bill 19, the Land Assembly Project Area Act, which allows the government to place restrictions on the use of private land that the government intends to use for a “public project.”
If a power company wants to install transmission lines through that property, for example, and the government deems it to be a “public project,” the landowner is prohibited from any activity that might interfere with the project. They can’t expand their farming operations without government permission.
Then there is Bill 50, the Electric Statutes Amendment Act, which allows power companies access to any private property, without the formality of a public hearing and despite landowner objections.
The icing on the cake is Bill 36, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act, which is the most controversial piece of legislation in the group.
Under the act, which opponents say is tailored to the needs of the energy industry, the government prohibits landowners and other concerned parties from questioning or challenging any development proposals through public hearings.
The act actually prevents landowners from seeking the protection granted by the Alberta Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court of Canada, say some experts.
No other province has attempted to impose such a massive and authoritarian planning scheme, which seems designed to strip landowners of property rights, due process and court protections, observes Alberta lawyer Keith Wilson, who is an expert on property rights.
“This legislation is dangerous, flawed and needs to be repealed,” said Wilson.
Stelmach says Albertans want the new rules. “Through nearly three years of consultations, Albertans told us they support orderly development,” he says.
But this package of legislation appears unilateral and greedy. It is an attack on basic rights so appalling that it threatens the very backbone of Progressive Conservative support: rural Alberta.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.