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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bill 36: The Alberta Land Stewardship Act - Fix It - Don't Kill It.

I want to direct your attention to a very well written op-ed piece in the Edmonton Journal, written by my friend Joe Obad, the Associate Director of Water Matters. It is a clear and comprehensive survey of why we need to retain the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) but we must fix it too.

The Alliance Party has said they would repeal the ALSA if they formed government. There is an election coming up soon so that is not an idle threat. That repeal position is consistent with the fundamental libertarian-based  beliefs of the Alliance.  They promote that private rights are paramount along with a belief that government is the problem and the marketplace can solve most if not all public policy problems.

Private property is one of the great things about our society and a basis of our prosperity.  There are times, however, when the greater good of community, has to take precedence.  For example when infrastructure requires private property to be expropriated and used for community needs like roads, schools, hospitals and so forth.  Now there is an other community interest legislated in the ALSA that recognises of a common community responsibility for stewardship of water, air, land and habitat protection.That is a good thing.

The balancing and choosing between competing values and interests is the essence of good governance.  That is why we elect governments. There is a growing suspicion amongst land owners, in rural Alberta especially, that bad politics might be used to choose instead of good governance.  It seems to many that politics are are play here. People are concerned that their lands can be taken by the government at the discretion (or whim?) of a Minister, without compensation or appeal to the courts.  That is the wrong way to go and once such a suspicion is embedded, it is hard to prove otherwise.  Cynicism dominates.  There is a line of argument that says none of those fears are founded but they persist anyway.

There is a perceived lack of clarity in the legislation that needs to be fixed to assure people that politics are not at play here and will not be.  There needs to be an explicit commitment to the protection of property rights of landowners.  There needs to be a clear commitment to a fair and open expropriation process with a legislated guarantee of adequate compensation and the right to seek redress from the courts if need be.

People knows that politics tends to enable abuse and coercion and that can't come into play here or anywhere else in good governance.  Interpretations of the implications of the ALSA vary and the intentions of the PC government are suspect.  Frustration, fear and distrust dominate the public discussions and the feelings of those showing up at the community meetings who hear and outline of the downside of the ALSA.

The fact that there is so much suspicion, lack of trust and disrespect for the stated intentions of the government on this matter is very telling.  It shines a spotlight on just how big the trust and respect gap is between the governed and the governors in Alberta these days.  It is the belief of many Albertans that our democracy is broken when well intended policy decisions are met with such fear and resistance.  It is also a terrific opportunity to play opposition politics and feed the fear and frustration for political gain. It is for others to decide if that is happening here but it is a legitimate question .

There is a lot that is very good and progressive about the ALSA.  Clearly some things about the legislation that need to be fixed for clarity, reassurance of intent and with strong guarantees to protect the property rights of citizens.  The value of environmental stewardship is near and dear to the hearts of most Albertans, including most private property owners. We can't lose those aspects of the legislation with a political promise of the Alliance to merely repeal the entire Act once elected. Repealing it is not a viable option.  That goes too far in the other direction.  Revisiting it and clarifying it is the best approach.

Joe Obed sets out the issues and events and the need for Albertans to have the ALSA.  He also put  the duty to get it right squarely on the Stelmach government.  We can only hope that there will be an honest, open, accountable and transparent process that empowers people and that the province engages in an authentic conversation with Albertans so we can keep the best and fix the rest of the ALSA.  We all need to be sure we get it right and that means we need fix it - not kill it.

Conversations matter.  Not every conversation changes the world but every time the world actually changes it  was usually started by a conversation.  Lets park the debate model that looks for winners and losers.  Lets dispel with the superficial meaningless public consultation processes.  Lets have an adult conversation that is province wide that uses the best evidence, the best expertise and seeks a mutually acceptable solution based on the principles or peace, order and good government...not top down command and control power politics.  Hopefully we will see some amendments to the ALSA in line with these aspirations in the forthcoming session of the Legislature.  Time will tell.