11/21/2012 12:56 EST | Updated 01/21/2013 05:12 EST

Alberta politicians debate all night on contentious land-use bill

EDMONTON - A debate over controversial land-use legislation turned into an all-night contest of wills between Alberta's governing PCs and the Opposition Wildrose party.

The two sides debated for 17 hours through Tuesday night and finished around lunchtime Wednesday when a truce was called and the government was able to move the bill to third and final reading.

Less than an hour later, the politicians were back in the house for the regular 1:30 p.m. start of the day's business.

Government house leader Dave Hancock said both sides felt they had made their points.

"They moved their remaining amendments through relatively expeditiously (just before lunch) and we got Bill 2 out of committee, which was our goal," said Hancock.

Hancock said he never considered using the government's majority to end debate and send the bill to third reading — a tactic that brings criticism that a government is being heavy-handed with the democratic process.

"We don't want to stop the opposition from raising anything they think is important about the legislation that is on the table," said Hancock. "There's no attempt to ram the bill through."

The Responsible Energy Development Act would see all coal, oil, gas and oilsands projects approved through one arm's-length regulatory body.

It would simplify and speed up approvals for projects such as oil wells built on private land, while also respecting the landowner and the environment.

But the Wildrose said those guarantees needed to be clarified and it proposed a raft of amendments over the marathon session.

All 21 amendments were defeated by the Tories.

Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson said citizens will once again be left with flawed legislation that forced the province in past years to pull back similar laws to be reworked.

"It (Bill 2) does the same thing. It takes away property rights, the rights of landowners. It takes away their rights to appeal, (and) it hurts the environment because it takes away the environmental appeals process," said Anderson.

The standoff came late Tuesday night, when Anderson and Hancock could not agree on the business of the house.

Hancock said he wanted to get through the extended debate portion of the bill, known as committee of the whole, to get it to third and final reading.

Anderson said he wanted to defer that to a different date so party leader Danielle Smith could speak to an amendment.

The two sides couldn't agree and the filibuster was on, with the Wildrose speaking at length to an amendment, followed by the government voting it down, followed by the Wildrose pitching another amendment and so on.

In between, politicians managed to pass third reading of less-contentious bills such as the New Home Buyer Protection Act and the Employment Pension Plans Act.

Hancock could also have shut down the debate at any point with the promise to continue it at another time.

But he said that would have been pointless, because it would have allowed Wildrose politicians to "reload" and come back to the next committee of the whole session with a slew of new amendments, and the marathon would have started all over again.

Liberal house leader Laurie Blakeman said the standoff is symptomatic of the distrust and animosity between the Tories and the Wildrose.

Both are right-centre parties. While the Tories defeated the Wildrose in the spring election, 61 members to 17, the Wildrose gained a foothold in rural ridings — especially in the south — due largely to voter discontent with land-use legislation.

Blakeman said she had hoped that under Premier Alison Redford the government would be more willing to listen to opponents and respect the democratic process, but she said such is not the case.

"They are more arrogant. They are pushing stuff through faster. (Hancock) seems to have a magic number in his head and he decides we're going to spend three hours in second (reading) on this bill and that's what it's going to be."

She said the macho posturing between Anderson and Hancock isn't helping.

"The male anatomy seems to come into these things more often than you would like, and that's part of what makes this an unattractive place for women to be," she said.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said the all-night session is the natural outgrowth of a legislature sitting that has often seen bleary-eyed politicians working late into the night to pass bills.

Mason said that's by design by a government that is getting heavy criticism over revelations, including one that Redford's sister, Lynn, charged taxpayers to attend and hold PC party functions.

"There's far more scrutiny of the government's activities when the legislature is sitting than when it is not," said Mason.

"The government doesn't like that, so it makes the sessions as short as possible by making them last long into the night."

The all-nighters might not be over.

The Wildrose said it still has concerns and amendments on the government's proposed whistleblower legislation, on election finance reform and on a bill to change the approvals process for power lines.

The fall sitting is to wrap up Dec. 6.