Provincial rollercoaster taking municipalities for a ride

Cities must adapt to new reality

On Sunday March 23 Alison Redford’s resignation became official and Dave Hancock was sworn in as Alberta’s 15th Premier. Hancock will stay in the role until the Progressive Conservative’s elect a new leader in four to six months.

Such an abrupt change in premiers changes everything for municipalities in Alberta. It means that cities and towns must change how and with whom they communicate when advocating for municipal issues provincially. It also means that a main point of contention — the predictability of provincial funding for municipalities — is suddenly less well predictable.

With Minister of Municipal Affairs Ken Hughes kicking the tires on a leadership bid for the PCs we could see the appointment of our third minister in that portfolio over two years. While former minister Doug Griffiths handed down some tough decisions on municipalities at times incurring the ire of the municipalities minister Hughes was seen as more collaborative and ready to smooth over some of the tensions in an attempt to focus on the oft-touted “Building Alberta” program. All indications suggest this was going well including the possibility that discussions over the Calgary and Edmonton city charters were drawing to a successful close.

Also looking at a leadership bid is the holder of Alberta’s purse strings Finance Minister Doug Horner. Big funding decisions cross his desk — nothing happens without money and money doesn’t happen without Horner’s thumbs-up.

It’s no secret that Calgary and Edmonton will play a pivotal role in the outcome of the next provincial election meaning you can expect many leadership contenders to focus on these two cities — especially given the sold out Wildrose leader’s dinner here in Calgary combined with troubling polls for the ruling dynasty.

For cities this means leverage. It means being able to put the priorities of growth and services on the agenda of the leadership race and the next election. After all you can’t be premier if you’re not leading the party with the most seats in the legislature and the last thing any new leader wants is to be the one to end a 43-year reign.

Yet for what it offers in leverage the leadership race will also take away in progress. As ministers hit the QEII to drum up support after resigning their cabinet posts the heavy lifting on such things as municipal funding urban drilling and city charters suddenly stalls. With new cabinet ministers appointed — likely for no longer than six months — things will slow and controversy will be avoided at all costs.

The government of Alberta will move into a maintenance mode. Keep things moving but not too fast. Make progress but no big splashes. No big announcements no big decisions no risk.

And this is where the headaches begin for municipalities. Growth doesn’t stop for a leadership campaign nor do the pressures it places on municipal infrastructure services and resources. Municipalities are demanding big changes in how they are funded so they can be better respond to increased complexity and the volume of demands and now they’re faced with a government where big changes aren’t on the menu. For now.

Perhaps the most significant change for municipalities isn’t in the offices of the premier or the ministers but in the backbench where most of the elected PCs reside. In the recent past it made sense to lobby the ministers and premier directly for changes to legislation and funding affecting municipalities but those days are done.

With the installation of the new premier who will very likely not be in that office six months from now coupled with the coming turnover at the cabinet table an inversion of power within the governing party is underway. Those backbench MLAs who called for control and input on the legislative agenda suddenly have it. Those ministers who once dictated the agenda are suddenly going to feel humbled or will quickly learn to be. Municipalities now more than ever need to focus on having constructive relationships with their MLAs — and given the ambiguity over what the next election will bring they’d be wise to nurture those relationships regardless of party.

The backbench is the new kid in town. It was backbenchers (and the party brass) who brought about the end of Alison Redford’s premiership and it is backbenchers that have the opportunity to shape the coming agenda.

Municipalities looking to move their own agenda — whether city charters infrastructure funding or urban drilling — need to start lobbying MLAs immediately. Until a new leader of the PCs is chosen backbenchers hold a great deal of power to set the course in the Alberta Legislature.

If municipalities want to be a part of it they’re going to have to go along for the ride.