AHEAD OF THE HEARD -- It’s the political issue that created the present Wildrose Party, helping to propel the party to its first electoral victories in southern Alberta. And as long as governments continue to ignore it, it will be the political gift that keeps on giving election after election for the Wildrose. The issue is property rights – a visceral issue that any property owner can relate to. There is nothing like the looming possibility of arbitrary land seizure by a heartless government to focus the attitude of voting property owners. You can bet it will be front and centre in the next election, particularly if the Alberta NDP government derails the latest legislative attempt to unravel the worst parts of existing property rights legislation. But there are some interesting political twists to the latest effort.
Pat Stier, MLA for Livingstone-Macleod recently introduced private members Bill 204 into the legislature to address the worst aspects of the property rights legislation that was passed by the previous PC government, specifically under Premier Stelmach and supported later by Premier Redford. That draconian legislation was the genesis of the demise of the PC party in rural and small town Alberta. No doubt that political memory is still around and it may well affect the present talks surrounding the “unite the right” movement between the PC and Wildrose parties. MLA Stier introduced a similar bill last year but it died at the end of the last legislative session. He has revived it with Bill 204, which contains provisions to repeal the most onerous and arbitrary sections of bills 19, 36 and 50 that had to do with land stewardship. In addition, Stier added a provision to end what’s known as “Squatters Rights” – a medieval right that gives occupiers land ownership if they squat on a piece of property for ten continuous years. Squatters rights still exist only in Alberta and Nova Scotia.
At this point it seems unlikely that the bill will pass, as it was not initiated by the present NDP government who have shown no inclination to support it even though while in opposition they did support the changes being promoted in the present bill. At the time NDP leader Brian Mason thundered that the original legislation was “yet another example of the PC government’s trend toward centralizing power in political leadership.” Noble words indeed, but once in power the concept seemed not so bad to the new NDP overlords. I would suggest that the notion of more centralized power is comfortably aligned with basic NDP socialist philosophy, harkening back to the days of nationalizing and centralizing sectors of the economy. When placed in a position of lessening government powers - NDP governments tend to be reluctant to give that power away.
The other driving force in the NDP’s change of heart is the power of the senior civil service. The bureaucrats that designed and created the concept and legal basis of bills 19, 36 and 50 are mostly still in power. Those folks are unlikely to support any changes to their previous handiwork. They also have the attentive ear of the government – last year the NDP government stated publicly that they supported and trusted the advice of their senior bureaucrats on most any issue. I suggest that the late Premier Prentice was also faced with the same bureaucratic opposition to changes in property rights legislation. One might recall that prior to the last election, understanding the political advantage Wildrose had with the property rights issue, the PCs under bureaucratic pressure promoted some utterly useless amendments rather than repealing the offending legislation – and the rest is political history.
By not supporting Bill 204, the NDP government is continuing to give the Wildrose its political bulldozer and the party will force the government to defend the offending legislation in the next election. But then the NDP’s electoral hopes in the countryside remain bleak, particularly if there is going to be only one right wing party. No doubt they understand this political reality and don’t care to waste any time on an issue that has little political benefit to NDP fortunes. The only conundrum with the property rights issue lies within the policy position of a possible united PC-Wildrose party. The PC party created the legislation that the Wildrose party has spent its life determined to destroy. I suspect the Wildrose perspective will prevail – after all it’s a proven and successful tool that will be used to hammer the NDP government at election time.