Tuesday February 17th was a bizarre day at the Alberta Legislature, where an all-party committee voted to reinstate the Auditor General's budget.
No, wait, sorry, they voted to rescind the budget. Or was it rescind the cut and reinstate the budget? Maybe it was rescind the reinstatement?
If this is all hurting your brain, welcome to the wacky world of Alberta politics in 2015.
The province’s committee on legislative officers has voted to reinstate a $546,000 cut to the office of the Auditor General.If you're still confused...okay, let's see here.
The Tory-dominated committee held the vote in a special meeting Tuesday morning, a week after voting to return the money to the office.
In restoring the money, committee members said Auditor General Merwan Saher had convinced them that the cuts would limit his office’s ability to find inefficiencies in the government.
However, the committee reversed its decision after a press conference by Premier Jim Prentice, who said the money would not be restored.
The Auditor General and the Child and Youth Advocate both had their budgets cut in December. This raised a bit of a stink. Last week, both men begged to have their budgets reinstated. The Auditor General won. The Child and Youth Advocate, as we covered last week, lost. In a way, taxpayers won on both counts as the AG's findings turned out to save more money than the cost of running the office.
After the AG won and the CYA lost, the Premier of Alberta announced that he didn't like the AG winning after all and declared that the Auditor General would have his funding cut as well. This led into the drama that ended with the committe reversing their original decision. So yes, if you've been confused up to this point: the Auditor General budget will be cut by $545,000 next year. Okay, actually the AG budget will be cut by $1.8M but the AG is only upset about $545,000 of it.
But the big story isn't so much the decision (it is, one notes, the same as was quietly reached in December), it's the methodology of how it occurred.
With Finance Minister Robin Campbell at his side, the premier said of the committee: "They can meet and they can discuss it, but at the end of the day the budget of the government of Alberta will reflect the realities that we are grappling with."
Asked if he was overruling the committee, Prentice said, "Yes."
His comments have been blasted by critics, who accuse the premier of interfering with the work of an independent body of the legislature.
Jeneroux stayed with the Tories and backed Prentice's leadership bid last summer. As committee chair, he scheduled Tuesday's meeting and posted an agenda on its website.
Despite repeated attempts to reach him, Jeneroux has not been available to comment on whether the premier ordered him to bring the committee back together and reverse its vote on the auditor general’s funding.
Given that Wilson and Bikman are now Tories, Forsyth insists the legislative offices committee is no longer an all-party committee, as it is intended to be.CBC commenter Keon Fan probably nailed it on the head with his comment to the story:
"The Official Opposition, the Wildrose, was not represented on that legislative committee … and was not there to be a voice on behalf of Albertans,” she said.
Her party sent a letter to the Speaker, saying, "the current circumstances are extraordinary and require an immediate response that would allow the Wildrose Official Opposition full representation … at the next scheduled meeting."
No response has been received.
I've been noticing all the signs around Alberta that still have Alison Redford's name at the bottom of them. And why not? The leadership is still just as dunderheaded and entitled as it was with her...In fact, almost everybody involved in this whole mess is looking awfully dunderheaded and it's getting harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff in this story.
This note at the bottom of the CBC story maybe explains it best:
In the middle of all this political drama is Auditor General Merwan Saher. As an independent officer of the legislature, his budget is set by this committee, without any need for approval from the premier or cabinet.Technically, this is true, the committee and not the Premier or the cabinet is responsible for the Auditor General's budget. Everybody declares this, members of the committee proudly tell their constituents about the role they play in government business by being on the committee, they even get a nice boost in pay for it (most of the time).
Of course, it's not entirely true.
These committees, like the Legislature as a whole, are made up of Members of the Legislative Assembly. These are the people elected by Albertans to do the business of governing. I know I'm sounding like a Grade 6 Social Studies teacher here, but sometimes you really have to simply this to a first-principles standpoint. This committee is formed to do the business of the Alberta Legislature. It's members are elected representatives, and befitting its purpose as a small-scale version of the larger House, its members are formed from various political parties. Of course, since one party has a clear majority in the House (in this case, the Tories) they also form the majority of the committee. When push comes to shove, and a vote has to happen, the governing party has to be in a position to win. That is, on the face of it, all perfectly logical and reasonable. It has to be, otherwise these committees would be a backdoor way of a coup: opposition members ganging up on the government to enact policy against the wishes of the governing party. Again, we're in basic Elementary School material here (okay, maybe we've bumped up to Jr. High at this point), nothing particularly crazy.
But then you remember that no matter what happens, the majority of the committee members are also members of the governing party. The governing party has decided that "severe"† cost cuttings are the way to go. At the end of the day, though the committee is indeed "independent" the people who are in the committee are still members of their respective parties. You can't much envision fag-loving committee member Laurie Blakeman bringing forward a motion in committee that calls for her personally endorsed "Safer Schools" nonsense to be cancelled or its funding slashed, nor could you imagine David Eggen voting in favour of a motion by that committee to censure MLA Rachel Notley. Sure, the committee is independent, but Eggen still needs to have a job when the committee ends and he re-joins caucus. It's ultimately no different for the governing members.
†In the words of some of their opponents, of course, not mine. I've already made it clear that anything less than a 40% budget cut is just pissing on a rope to inhale the steam.
Everything of course got more confusing when you notice that this all-party committee is missing one of the parties. With Wilson and Bikman's defection to the Progressive Conservatives, it meant that this particular committee had two members who left one party for another, leaving that party in the dark as to what happens on the committee. As a result, of the 11 members of the committee nine of them are members of the governing party rather than the 7 that was supposed to be there. This is, as the opposition declared today, patently undemocratic.
That is also not entirely true.
Whatever our political or aesthetic reasons might be for objecting to the defection to the Tories of several former Wildrose MLAs might be, they did join the governing party. Rightly or wrongly, and like it or not, it did actually happen. In the same way that the committee reflected the Legislature by having a government majority, next largest bloc being the official opposition, and the other opposition parties being the other parties; so too obviously the committee members leaving the opposition for the government is also reflecting the Legislature, as ugly as it might appear to be for us.
Jeff Wilson did abandon Wildrose for the Progressives. However angry I might be at him for doing so, it did indeed happen. So long as we don't require him to give up his seat in the Legislative Assembly, I'm not sure how the calls to require him to give up his seat in the committee can have even the slightest legitimacy. We didn't get a point of order or point of privilege or whatever when he and Danielle Smith and all those others crossed the floor in the House itself, so it wasn't surprising that the consequences of it don't get subjected to the same rules.
To realize how silly these arguments today were sounding, let's try a thought experiment. Let's imagine that Prentice has widened the big Tory tent even wider than it is now: let's say that the rest of the Wildrose are convinced to cross the floor and join him, to the level where there are no Wildrose Party MLAs left in the legislature. Who would we put on the committee then? Would we put some non-MLAs in the spots? Of course not, even the hypothetical Grade 6s I was talking to earlier in this post would realize that was lunacy. You could argue that they are no longer the official opposition and indeed don't have party status in the Assembly, I suppose. So let's widen the Prentice tent even more: now the entire Liberal Party has joined his PC Big Tent too. Do they get a seat on the committee? What if (and cringe if you must, but think about this) every opposition MLA joined the governing party. Can you think of any reason in this circumstance to put non-government MLAs on the committee?
Of course you can't. The problem is of course that you'd be breaking the same logic that's being so viciously broken about the lack of Wildrose involvement. When the members of Wildrose that were suggested for this committee end up leaving Wildrose entirely, it makes it difficult to argue that the committee needs to change because of this. The issue stems from the same problem that causes Wildrose supporters in Bashaw a problem: that seat in the Legislative Assembly doesn't belong to Wildrose, it belongs to the Member of the Legislative Assembly for High River (Smith, Danille, Mrs.) The seat on the committee belongs to the MLA for the same reasons: and for the same reasons that like it or not we have to accept the MLA no longer being in the party we want her to be in, the committee seat belongs to an MLA for the "wrong" party. Some radio call-ins asked why Steve Young could send a proxy and Wildrose couldn't. Loopy Joe Anglin demanded that committee members be removed from their independent committee by the Legislative Assembly as a whole (so much for the "independence" being called upon to demand that Prentice be censured). This literally all cannot make sense in a universe where you understand that the seat belongs to the MLA. Not a party.
It sucks, I know. But sorry, it's true.
It also ends up being a little too much "inside baseball" for my tastes. Trust me, I get enough bullshit at work every day dealing with people arguing over trivial bits of policy and procedure and who reframe every question that involves making high level decisions in terms of minutia regarding petty empire-building and blindly following "the way we do things around here". I don't need it in politics too.
Okay, that sounded patently ridiculous, let me graciously step back from that. I know it's going to exist in politics, almost by definition. But the rest of us don't really need to care. It's not really critical to the way government runs our lives, from the internal squabbles in Alberta over points of procedure or priviledge or whatever the hell the Legislative Assembly was obsessed with on Tuesday, to Ottawa up in arms whether or not the Prime Minister is a "bully". The ultimate question at the end of the day was: did the AG get a budget increase? No? Okay, you want to debate whether that's good or bad, that's fine. But let's not pretend that the procedural web of policies and rules and guidelines the Alberta Legislative Assembly uses, and how people don't like them in practice, is the story.