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Spring sitting ends with passing of contentious bills granting province more power

A local political scientist is urging Albertans to “connect the dots” in what she says is “democratic backsliding” in the province.

The spring sitting of the Alberta Legislature ended on Wednesday with the passing of two contentious bills that critics claim threaten democratic processes in the province.

Bill 20, The Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, has been met with ongoing criticism from both rural and urban municipal leaders who have called it a power grab.

Alongside putting political parties on municipal ballots, the legislation grants the province greater authority to fire elected municipal councillors and veto city bylaws.

Political scientist Elizabeth Smythe, a recently retired professor at Concordia University, said the bill – which the province claims will increase transparency in municipal elections – will erode local political processes.

“The whole partisan element that’s being introduced, allowing for more money into elections at the local level and limiting the ability of marginalized people to vote – that’s a standard toolkit for democratic backsliding,” Smythe said.

“You start to interfere with the electoral system, you claim there’s something suspicious,” she continued. “These are all part of that narrative that again, weakens confidence in the elected councillors.”

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver defended the bill Wednesday afternoon before it was passed, saying the province will work with municipal leaders on regulations as promised.

“It’s a good bill,” McIver said. “The municipality’s life tomorrow if it passes today will be the same.”

Adding to the tension this sitting was Bill 18, legislation requiring Alberta schools, health agencies or municipalities to get provincial approval for any deals made with the federal government.

Smythe said the bills will create a chilling effect on municipalities and threaten academic freedom. Neither, she added, address the “real concerns” of Albertans like the economy or cost of living.

“They’re a very sinister sideshow, and they’re leading to a situation where the government is going to be relatively unrestrained,” Smythe said.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the legislation was pushed through far too quickly after debate was limited to just one hour at each stage.

Notley also said Premier Danielle Smith’s government has failed to follow through on election promises, instead passing legislation Notley believes will be used to “intimidate and bully.”

“This is part of a disturbing trend of very right-wing politicians that we’re seeing across western democracies across the globe, and we all need to redouble our efforts to hold our elected officials accountable,” Notley said.

While each bill alone may not seem alarming to many Albertans, Smythe said the combined effect of legislation centralizing power in the province will make it harder to hold the government accountable in the long term.

“You may see that the only way that your voice can be heard is if it’s one that’s favorable to the government, so it’s quite serious,” Smythe said.

“Start connecting the dots, because one day you’re going to wake up and you’re going to see that your voice and your ability as a citizen to hold governments accountable is very weak.”

Wednesday marked the end of Smith’s first year in office. It’s a year she said has been spent “fulfilling many of the promises” made by the UCP.

“We are delivering on our mandate of taking the Alberta Advantage to new heights and ensuring this province remains the best place to live, work, invest and raise a family,” Smith said in a press release.

The new legislation will take effect early next year. Alberta’s MLAs are scheduled to return to the legislature in October for the fall sitting.

CTV News Edmonton has reached out to the province and is awaiting a response.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Chelan Skulski 

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