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Legislation for municipal political parties in large Alberta cities ‘very likely,’ says premier

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she’s in favour of establishing political parties at the municipal level for larger cities, suggesting legislation on the matter could come during the spring sitting.

It’s a move that would introduce formal political affiliations on city councils. 

Such parties are in place already in British Columbia and Quebec, but so far polling has suggested a tepid response to the idea in Alberta.

“I’m in favour, especially for the largest municipalities — maybe not everyone,” Smith said on her Saturday morning radio program, Your Province. Your Premier.

“We’ve got 355 municipalities. The smaller the municipality, I don’t know that they’re as partisan. But when you get into a city the size of Calgary or Edmonton, you better believe it’s partisan.”

Formalizing that would bring more transparency, she said.

Ric McIver
A file photo of Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver. A spokesperson for McIver says the ministry is reviewing the overall results of an engagement around implementing potential changes to the Local Authorities Election Act. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The premier added that she’s communicated her support for such an idea to Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver, but she noted that any decision would need to be put in front of cabinet, caucus, and receive consultation and feedback.

“[There will] very likely be … there’ll be legislation that addresses this in this spring session,” Smith said.

Last year, the provincial government ran two online surveys between Nov. 7 and Dec. 6, 2023, with an eye toward implementing potential changes to the Local Authorities Election Act and the Municipal Government Act. The former sets the rules for elections in the province.

In response to a request for more information, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs wrote in an email that the results of those surveys are being reviewed, including the possibility of updating the Local Authorities Election Act.

“Alberta’s government reviews local election laws regularly to make sure the rules continue to strengthen transparency and accountability in our local elections and election officials,” wrote Scott Johnston.

Most Albertans opposed to idea, poll suggests

In early September, a survey conducted by pollster Janet Brown for Alberta Municipalities, the association representing 260 of Alberta’s municipalities, suggested 68 per cent of Albertans would like candidates to continue to run as individuals and not members of political parties.

From there, the poll went on to give people reasons why political parties in municipalities would or would not be a good idea in municipal politics, Brown said in an interview.

The biggest concern people had was that municipal politicians would start to act in the best interest of a political party, not necessarily in the best interest of their community.

“They thought it would make politics more divisive. They thought maybe high-quality candidates would be discouraged from running at the municipal level,” Brown said.

A poll is pictured.
Survey respondents were presented with five statements and asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with each. (Janet Brown Opinion Research)

In January, Postmedia reported more than 70 per cent of respondents to the government’s online survey were opposed to having political parties in municipal elections, citing a freedom of information request. CBC News has not seen the survey results.

Brown noted those numbers would track closely with what her survey indicated.

On the positive side, Brown said her survey suggested people thought adopting political parties would make it easier for people to identify the policies of local candidates.

“But it is really clear that the negatives around this idea outweigh the positives,” she said.

Alberta Municipalities, which commissioned the poll, has been critical of the idea.

A man stands behind a podium.
Tyler Gandam, president of Alberta Municipalities, spoke during a press conference last Thursday, saying there was little support for the provincial government’s proposal to introduce political parties at the local level. (Alberta Municipalities)

Tyler Gandam, president of Alberta Municipalities, participated in a press conference last week in which he said a resolution expressing opposition to the idea received 95 per cent of the vote at the Alberta Municipalities annual convention in Edmonton in September.

“Our association’s message to the Government of Alberta and special interest groups that are eager to see partisan politics introduced at the local level is clear, unwavering and unequivocal,” said Gandam, who is also the mayor of Wetaskiwin, Alta. “Listen to regular Albertans who have repeatedly said they simply aren’t interested.”

Political analyst Lori Williams of Mount Royal University said there were open questions around “whether this government recognizes the autonomy of municipalities and wishes of those who live in them.”

“I don’t think that ideology is a primary concern at the municipal level. People are concerned about quality of life, they’re concerned about things like managing transit … things that are very much to the municipal level,” Williams said. 

“The question of ideology, or partisanship, is much less important.”

Councillors at odds on issue

Local council members have weighed in at various times since the provincial government’s interest arose in municipal political parties. 

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek has come out against the idea, writing on X, formerly Twitter, that “our service to the people relies on us being non-partisan.” 

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has said in the past he believes the current system works well.

Calgary councillors, meanwhile, have voiced different opinions over the past number of months.

Coun. Dan McLean told CBC News in 2023 that there could be merit in allowing political parties at the local level, adding it could help voters better understand where candidates stand. 

In an interview Tuesday, the Ward 13 councillor said his understanding today is that such parties would not be aligned with federal or provincial parties.

“I would be not opposed to that,” McLean said. “I can still vote with my conscience. As long as your platform aligned with my values, that would be a good thing.”

Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian, on the other hand, said she was concerned implementing such an idea would ensure that council would start to attract only people who wanted to be highly partisan.

“We need really good [talented] people who are willing to put up their hand and volunteer for these roles. The challenge is a party banner can make people not want to get involved,” she said in an interview.

“I think being able to individually represent your community, not having to toe a party line if it’s not the right thing for your citizens, is something that I think we should preserve.”

She cited the recent appeal of a contentious single-use items bylaw as evidence of the ability of local government to adjust course and not get locked down in partisanship.

A man stands in a green grassy lawn.
Gerald Baier, an associate professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, noted municipal political parties in B.C. have not been a replication of pre-existing provincial parties. (Kevin Li/CBC)

Meanwhile, in British Columbia, municipal political parties have a long history, particularly in Vancouver and some of the surrounding cities. In fact, there is an expectation that elections will be organized around political parties, explained Gerald Baier, an associate professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

“It’s partly a consequence of having an at-large electoral system in the city. It kind of organizes the vote a little bit, because we could have — for the six or eight council seats at any given time — there could be 30 or 40 candidates, and we need some way to organize that kind of group for voters to understand,” Baier said.

It does have an effect on the way council works, as mayors will hope to get elected with like-minded councillors to have a majority on council to realize their goals, he said.

Introducing a polarized political system to Alberta councils could serve to make municipal politics more of a training ground for a leap to other levels of government, he said.

In B.C., political parties already look for strong candidates to come out of municipalities — if they have already expressed a political party affinity or an ideological affinity with parties at the provincial or national level, said Baier. He added there is a degree of party discipline that exists on councils.

The Janet Brown Opinion Research survey questions of 900 Albertans aged 18 and over were administered through the TrendWatch Alberta Omnibus Survey between Aug. 29 and Sept. 12, 2023, with a margin of error of +/- 3.3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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