Sunday, April 15, 2012

Free Votes

Nation, I love the idea of free votes. I think every vote in the Legislature should be a free vote - if a bill or motion can't pass on its own merits, it shouldn't pass. If a government can't win a confidence motion without invoking party discipline, it should fall. It's that simple - MLA's should serve their constituents first, and all Alberta second, and their private, members-only club we call a "political party" not at all. (I also think every vote should be recorded, but it's only 2012 - we don't yet have the technology, apparently, to write down who voted "yes" and who voted "no" on every question. We're busy people.)

However, a Twitter conversation this morning about free votes spurred me to do a bit of research...

A notable PC MLA in south-east Calgary stated, in the Legislative Assembly while in defense of the bill they introduced targeting drinking & driving:
"It is clear that more can be done to address this problem and stop unnecessarily placing the lives of Albertans at risk. If this were Utopia, the federal government would have invoked a zero tolerance in the Criminal Code long ago... This Assembly cannot change the Criminal Code. It is out of our jurisdiction. What we can do is write our own traffic laws in the interest of public safety. This is what my bill does. It prevents drivers who blow over .05 BAC to the legal limit from driving for 24 hours. It is very simple. It is a reasonable request, and it is the right thing to do."
Later on:
"(the bill) is not going to take drivers with a BAC of .05 to .08 and lock them away and throw away the key. It simply takes a driver who is a danger to public safety and removes his or her driving privileges for 24 hours. What (the bill) is saying is that drinking and driving hurts everyone involved, so just don’t do it. Having a 24-hour suspension is certainly going to make anyone think about it before they drive having had a couple, because in fact many impaired driving accidents happen after only a couple. This legislation will work in keeping drinking drivers off the road, making our roads safer for all Albertans. Having a licence suspension for 24 hours for drivers in that range is a small initiative that will pay huge dividends by saving the lives of Albertans."
Pretty standard fare, coming from Solicitor General Jonathan Denis in defence of Bill 26, the "0.05 Law".

Only problem is: Those words aren't being spoken by Jonathan Denis.

They're being spoken by Heather Forsyth, the PC MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek, on November 15th, 2000 to support her Private Member's Bill 210: The Traffic Safety Amendment Act (2000).

If you replace "24 hours" with "72 hours", it's the same Bill that Denis and the PC Government passed last December to curtail drunk driving.

One wonders how Forsyth feels about this piece of literature being distributed in Calgary-Acadia, just across Anderson Road from her own constituency, by fellow Wildrose candidate Richard Jones.

If a Wildrose Government will, as Jones contends, "overturn the 'one-drink-no-driving' .05 law... that turns every day Albertans into criminals", I expect that, as the Wildrose advocates for free votes, Forsyth would oppose this step in the Legislature. After all... 11 years ago, she didn't just SUPPORT a 0.05 law - she INTRODUCED it. It was HER BILL. It was "the right thing to do", and was going to "save the lives of Albertans".

On December 6, 2011, Bill 26 came up for Third Reading, the final step before a Bill gets sent for Royal Assent (when it becomes law).

Forsyth, now the Whip for a Wildrose Party that says it believes in free votes, voted against.

I guess the people of Calgary-Fish Creek told her that the extra 48 hours of suspension was too high a price to pay to save lives.

Jones says that the Wildrose believes you should be allowed to drive without repercussions at 0.05 BAC.

Forsyth said in 2000 that taking drivers at 0.05 BAC off the road would save lives. Which seems to fly in the face of what Jones says is the policy of a Wildrose Government.

And in 2011, given a chance to prove her commitment to take what she had labelled life-risking drivers off the road and show her commitment to the principle of free votes, Forsyth instead voted along party lines and against Bill 26.

Actions speak louder than words.

So much for the Wildrose commitment to free votes.

p.s. - And YES, Wildrose supporters - I know the PC's are just as bad a lot of the time. But "Vote Wildrose - we're no worse than the PCs" isn't the slogan I've been hearing. If you're going to campaign on the notion of being better, more noble, and more democratic - you have to BE those things.


Colton_Ness said...

While I agree that actions speak louder than words I think you (purposely?) oversimplified the situation described.

Bill 26 is contentious for more reasons than just the extra 48 hours in suspension as you note. The biggest and most obvious being the seizure of property. I and I'm sure a lot of Wildrose supporters, maybe even Heather herself, are strongly against this being in the bill.

Then there is the matter of time. Almost 12 years elapsed between her introduction of the Bill and the vote on Bill 26. Call me optimistic but I believe when faced with a good argument people can change their positions, I see that as a quality not a fault.

And I saw your p.s. I just thought we should note that on Bill 26 there was certain PC MLAs who abstained from voting because they were not allowed to vote against the party.

Enlightened Savage said...

Colton: Thanks for your thoughts.

Rearding the seizure of property, I'm assuming that whenever the police find a suspect with something that could be used as a weapon, they sieze it. Obviously, that knife or gun isn't subject to towing fees or storage fees like a car is, but the gist is the same.

I'm perfectly willing to allow that Heather changed her mind in between 2000 and 2011. A mind should always be open to new information. I just want to hear it from her: She voted against Bill 26, and if the property siezure clause is the issue, she has voted for far more flawed legislation in her 19 years in office, because the good outweighed the flaws. DID she change her opinion about .05? And if not, what does she think about Richard Jones committing a government she hopes to be part of to scrapping Bill 26 due to arguments that she rebutted 12 years ago?

The notion of "not being allowed" to vote a certain way is absolute bunk, and everyone who knows anything about the legislative process knows that. Absolutely NO ONE can stop an MLA from voting for or against a motion or bill as their conscience dictates. There may be repercussions within the party, up to an including expulsion form the caucus - but only the voters can fire you. And getting kicked out of the party because you stood up for your voters is a pretty good way to make those voters NOT want to fire you.

If someone says they "can't" vote for or against something, it's because they feel it would be a career-limiting move to do so. And that's putting their own postion in their party (and their own income, as a committee chair or cabinet minister) ahead of their sworn duty to represent the people of their constituency. It's not a failure of the party - it's a failure of character on the part of the Member.

Quote me on that.

Colton_Ness said...

I dont agree with your notion that the gist of seizing the vehicle is the same as seizing a weapon. I think everyone would agree a vehicle is not a weapon without someone dangerous behind the wheel. Reasons I dont like the seizure portion is for one why can't a sober friend or family member go and get the vehicle either before or after it has been towed to limit the impound costs? Second, if a family only has one vehicle you are now punishing other individuals who have not committed any offence by holding the vehicle. Along the same lines what if its a company vehicle, you may now be holding up an entire job. Sure these may be seen a incentives not to drink & drive but I think its a government abusing its power.

That was a bad choice of words on my part saying "not allowed". I agree that the responsibility ultimately lies with the individual MLA but I would add that a party should encourage the free vote as the Wildrose says they will (Im as sceptical as anyone), and not threaten members with repercussions if they vote against party line. Some responsibility for this erosion of democracy is on the party.

Enlightened Savage said...

I agree re: the seizure being onerous. I'm not 100% certain that wasn't the point, though. If someone's driving while under the influence, don't we as a society WANT them to not have access to their vehicle for a while, until they can sober up and make some better choices? THAT SAID, though, I argued against this clause, and continue to do so, because of the lack of due process. I think that decision should be made by a judge, not by a cop who doesn't have all the facts. I trust our cops, implicitly. But that's the system we have, and IMO we should stick to it.

I'm heartened by the Wildrose and Alberta Party (and others) talking about free votes in the Legislature. To be perfectly frank, though, when I look at Wildrose I see a LOT of former Tories, both out front and in the back rooms, who were perfectly comfortable within the "top-down" structure of their former party when it was Ralph running things. I'm more inclined to give the Alberta Party more crednce on this one, just because most of them have never been in power and done it the "old way".

B. Lang said...

It is unfortunate that we won't have the opportunity to know why Forsyth 'changed her mind' and voted against virtually the same bill as she introduced as a PC MLA (my MLA, in fact) because she doesn't speak to us. The only time we've heard from her was when she contacted the media about a 'robocall' she received (not unlike the 'robocalls' her party made to my house - but I didn't contact the media). It would be helpful to know why she determined Bill 26 was so wrong and didn't warrant her support (as in a free vote) and instead decided to keep to the party line. Talk to us, Heather!

Anonymous said...

Richard Marz voted against Bill 26 and wasn't kicked out of caucus or punished. There goes the Wildrose nonsense that MLA's can't speak the wishes of their constituents.