Former finance minister questions whether Alberta sovereignty bill would pass

Former Alberta finance minister Travis Toews delivers the 2021 budget in Edmonton on Feb. 25.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s former finance minister – with a large portion of the United Conservative caucus supporting him for party leader – has added his voice to those questioning whether a rival’s promised bill rejecting federal law would pass in the legislature.

Travis Toews says he will pursue other levers to carry the fight to the federal government instead of resorting to what he characterized as self-aggrandizing recipes for legal and economic chaos.

“I think that would be pretty questionable,” Mr. Toews said when asked in an interview Thursday whether he believes fellow leadership candidate Danielle Smith’s proposed Alberta sovereignty act would gain enough votes to pass in the legislature.

“I’ve got really about half the [United Conservative] MLAs right now overtly supporting me. And I’ve certainly heard from many of them real concerns over the sovereignty act approach.”

Mr. Toews made the comments a day after UCP government house leader and Finance Minister Jason Nixon told reporters he, too, doubts the act would find enough support in the house.

Mr. Nixon, who said he believes Mr. Toews is the best candidate, called Ms. Smith’s proposal fundamentally illegal and unenforceable, bad for business and politically problematic for overpromising what can’t be accomplished.

Mr. Toews said he agrees and is particularly distressed over what the act would mean for business viability, investor confidence and jobs.

“An environment where you’re asking businesses and companies to ignore federal law is not an environment that attracts investment.”

He said uncertainties and inequalities would compound if some businesses decided to follow the province’s lead and ignore certain laws and court rulings while other businesses decided to abide by them.

“It has the potential to create economic chaos in the province of Alberta,” he said.

“We need to be assertive when we deal with Ottawa in terms of Alberta’s place in Confederation – assertive and strategic,” he added.

“I’m not about all that tired political rhetoric all for personal political gain that ultimately results in disillusioned Albertans and angry Albertans.”

Mr. Toews pointed to his five-point plan on federal relations, which would see a provincial pension plan, a provincial police force and working with other provinces to create consensus to alter the equalization formula and shift taxing power from Ottawa to the regions.

He said his government would also pass legislation to levy tariffs on goods and services or imports from specific regions to counter rules and policies deemed unfair to Alberta.

“I’m a great believer in free trade but Alberta needs a way to tangibly push back in a very specific way,” he said.

Mr. Toews stepped down as finance minister in late May to run for the leadership. He has close to 30 committed supporters among UCP caucus members, while Ms. Smith has two.

Ms. Smith, a former Wildrose Party leader, radio talk show host and businesswoman, is considered one of the front-runners in the race to replace Premier Jason Kenney as party leader and premier when voting takes place Oct. 6.

Last month, Ms. Smith announced that if she wins the leadership, she would immediately introduce the sovereignty act bill granting her government the discretion to refuse to enforce federal laws or court decisions it deems an intrusion on provincial rights or a threat to Alberta interests.

Ms. Smith has said it’s critical Alberta draw a line in the sand immediately when it comes to federal intrusions in areas such as energy development and COVID-19 measures.

Her campaign declined an interview Thursday but pointed to her statement a day earlier that said the sovereignty act would be invoked on a case-by-case basis and only after gaining support of members in the house in a free vote.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said while Mr. Nixon’s assessment of the bill’s flaws is accurate, the UCP caucus signalling it may not support Smith’s signature legislation could galvanize her supporters.

“Nixon is right on this. It is illegal. It is unconstitutional,” said Mr. Bratt with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“I’ve been wondering at what point there was going to be a clash between the current government and the leadership race. Well we saw that [with Nixon’s comments] yesterday.”

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