It was a long time in coming, but the Alberta government finally acknowledged that maybe – just maybe – there were some misunderstandings with Bill 36, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. They have introduced Bill 10, which amends the original legislation. Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight was not admitting that they had made any mistakes – governments almost never eat such humble pie – but instead addressed the obvious. Critics, including the Wildrose party, took immediate aim at changing the hot button word “extinguish” to “rescind,” noting that was just mere legal bafflegab that could be interpreted to suit the situation, besides at the end of the day the cabinet still had the final say. Anytime there is such legal vagueness you just know lawyers are licking their lips in anticipation of endless lawsuit wrangling and appeals.
It would seem that PC government MLAs and strategists finally realized that the property rights issue was destroying their rural political fortress and that they finally had to admit that perhaps the threat was real and they had to do something, although they did so belatedly. I suspect they would have acted sooner, but there seemed to be some mental hurdles to overcome; firstly, the offending legislation was the baby of former cabinet minister Ted Morton, a prickly political heavyweight who few wanted to cross. He is now out of cabinet campaigning for the premiership, so he is sort of out of the way.
Next was that entrenched government attitude towards captive voters, being such voters have no other choice. It now seems government MLAs are grudgingly accepting that the Wildrose party is not a flash in the pan and will be around to plague them in the next election. Finally, government politicians probably had to overcome resistance from senior bureaucrats and lawyers resistance, since they created the offending legal language in the first place.
The amendments may have the effect of taking some of the wind out of the sails of the opposition battleship and may cause wayward PC voters to return to the safety of their familiar political flock – at least that is the hope. Critics of the legislation and the Land Use Framework (LUF) will no doubt try to keep the issue alive with more allegations and fearmongering; time will tell. Opposition parties are already casting about for another land-related issue and they may have caught one. They are already trying to link the vast power line link plan as an example of the true intention of PC government land-use policy. Land expropriation nightmares and arrogant non-consultations are sure to be exploited by critics and opposition parties.
Harvey Buckley, prominent rancher and former chairman of the Agricultural Products Marketing Council, has noted that there are provisions in some of the land-related legislation to set up an entity similar to the Marketing Council. He points out that agency has addressed marketing board and commission issues for almost three decades and seems to function well. The surface rights board would be another good example.
Such a regulatory/appeal agency may well be the answer in the long run, but access to the courts needs to be maintained. The reality is government agencies, quasi or otherwise, are usually populated with political appointees that makes them suspect especially if they make controversial decisions.
The political firestorm over land-related legislation, and it has become very over-arching including leases, access, etc., is giving many citizens the feeling that this government and its senior bureaucracy is bent on centralizing everything. Certainly wiping out the rural health regions into one authority in Edmonton only confirms those suspicions. The government in establishing the LUF and the subsequent regional planning entities disputes the centralization allegation. They contend, and rightly so, that the planning consultation process is in local and regional hands. Yet suspicions grow over the process with lobby groups of every stripe organizing to challenge any recommendations coming out of the regional land use plans.
Meanwhile the government backtracks with amendments to legislation and seems unwilling to change course unless its back is against the wall. The opposition has had a free ride on the issue and gained much political capital. However, they too need to come up with some viable policy on land use planning. Farming and ranching in this province are not just a major economic sector, but also a major part of our environmental and rural culture and needs to be protected from urban and industrial encroachment. Land-use planning, central or otherwise is needed, how that can be achieved with everyone accepting and buying into the process is the moving target.