Submitted for her approval: Danielle Smith’s new jab at Trudeau hits cities, universities too

Submitted for her approval: Danielle Smith's new jab at Trudeau hits cities, universities too

Earlier this week, the Danielle Smith government performed its latest round of celebrating “red tape reduction.” It pledged to streamline and slash bureaucratic burdens for rural utilities, cannabis vendors and autonomous-vehicle innovators.Two days later, what happened?The premier announced legislation declaring that next year any municipality, school or agency that wanted any dollar or any deal with Ottawa would first need provincial civil servants to review, deliberate and give Alberta’s seal of approval.Based on the new legislation, that covers an Alberta town arranging new Canada Post mailbox sites, or Red Deer’s next sponsored Canada Day celebrations, or a school board wishing to continue a funding program for Indigenous students with disabilities. The list of examples could stretch far longer.United Conservative paperworkIt covers not only any new deal between any one of these provincial entities and any federal agency, but any extended or renewed agreement would need Alberta’s fortis et liber stamp too.Existing deals for projects — like affordable housing, wastewater or cycling trail rehabilitation  — would be fine, although Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver added a caveat that might send chills into the souls of the province’s mayors.”Unless they have terms that can’t be lived with,” he cautioned.The prospect of Smith’s government as go-between had already gotten municipal leaders fuming in advance, and may ensnare university and college presidents too, now that it’s clear the bill will also require post-secondary schools to get provincial OK for federal research grants as well.Smith professes she doesn’t intend to create more red tape for agencies — after all, in her mind, red tape’s bad and her government’s policy aims are good. It’s all in the name of sticking it to the guy she routinely sticks it to.”In Alberta today, we are taking back more of our jurisdictional control and telling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet that they cannot make deals without our express approval.” She’s no longer the only Canadian premier in this mood. Others, like Ontario Premier Doug Ford — a routine Trudeau ally, although Conservative — have become increasingly irked by the Ottawa Liberals’ announcements that tread on the provinces’ jurisdictional turf. Trudeau’s recent pre-budget tour has been full of them: school lunch programs, housing funding tied to local zoning reform, and before that child care, pharmacare and dental care — all the constitutional domain of the provinces. Other premiers, like Ontario’s Doug Ford, right, have also pushed back against Ottawa interfering in provincial jurisdiction. But Alberta’s premier is the first to mimic Quebec’s legislation that blocks municipal-federal deals without provincial OK. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)Municipalities are provincial jurisdiction, too, as much as mayors will protest this week and always that they shouldn’t be treated like a premier’s children.However, Alberta is the first to act on this frustration, mimicking a 40-year-old Quebec law allowing the government to nullify any deals between Ottawa and provincial entities that provincial cabinets haven’t signed off on. It was enacted in 1984 under the Parti Québécois, a party with a different flavour of sovereignism than Smith’s UCP.Like the province that’s held two separation referendums, Smith wishes to seal off intrusions on Alberta’s “priorities.” The bill’s name declares that.To the premier, that means fighting fiercely against the Liberals’ net-zero grid targets, green building codes, contraception-and-insulin-first pharmacare deal, safe-supply harm reduction and the like. “They fund in a certain way based on a certain ideology,” said the premier, the day before she jets to Ottawa for the Canada Strong and Free Network’s annual conservative political conference.Smith knows the initiatives her government opposes, and she wants to maximize her authority to keep them away from all Albertans.Like electric city buses, which she took aim at in announcing the legislation. She disparaged Ottawa for subsidizing an Edmonton fleet that is, it turns out, prone to breaking down.However, the province was involved in that purchase in 2018 (when the NDP was in power). Alberta officials had vetted, signed, and cut their own cheque.It’s just that the current government has retrospective regret, skepticism, and a preference for hydrogen fuel. Last year, it opted to let Ottawa and Calgary council make their own deal on a 259-bus purchase.Grants pendingUCP ideology and intervention could poke in as well on campuses, with Alberta’s bill going a step farther than Quebec’s and requiring approval of outside deals by post-secondary schools.Smith said she wants a provincial eye on some federal grants. “Just look at the social research fund they have. I think it’s $400 million, and you’ll see the kind of projects they fund.”In fact, total federal grants to both the University of Alberta and University of Calgary totalled $400 million in 2022-2023.  For Calgary’s major institution, that’s about 13.3 per cent of its total revenue, composed of dozens if not hundreds of smaller grants with arm’s-length engineering, health and social science research agencies, as well as the Canada Research Chair professorships.Smith and McIver insisted this won’t be the burden mayors have feared, that the province has far closer relations with municipalities and much of this would be a breeze. Somehow, it will also mean more federal funding for them.Smith said that of some 14,000 intergovernmental deals provincial ministries analyzed in advance of this bill  “only” 800 were flagged for closer scrutiny. (That still involves a lot of review, although there were no provincial estimates of how much office time all this would consume.)Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criss-crossed Canada in recent weeks to announce budget programs for school lunches and local infrastructure for housing, both of which are constitutionally a province’s role to provide (or not). (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)There will be more consultation with councils and agencies to determine the bureaucratic processes and the potential for exemptions of smaller, less potentially worrisome federal agreements.It appears the inverse of the usual way lawmaking works — consult, determine limitations and parameters, then pass the law — but this created opportunities to poke and warn the Trudeau Liberals sooner, given that they may not be in power much longer.Which raises another point.Timing is…This reform is supposed to take effect in early 2025. That’s mere months before a federal election in which voters currently seem extremely likely to depose the Trudeau government and choose the Pierre Poilievre Conservatives that Smith is allied with.Poilievre’s own housing plan includes several carrots and sticks for individual municipalities.…everythingIt means that after a few months of the UCP government getting in the way of Liberal interventions, it would spend years as the sort of “gatekeeper” the federal Conservative leader purports to despise, standing with triplicate forms in between him and action.But Smith doesn’t mean this to cause problems for Poilievre, town councils, the provincial bureaucracy or anyone whose name doesn’t start with T and end in U.Albertans in the public sector will likely want to carefully consider that idea, review it and weigh it against reality before determining whether they approve of it.

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