12/11/2014 11:28 EST | Updated 02/10/2015 05:59 EST

Alberta "do-over" fall legislature session, marked by low oil prices, wraps up

EDMONTON - Premier Jim Prentice's first tour of duty in the Alberta legislature was a disappointing "do-over" that foreshadows little vision and a hard swing to the political right, critics said Thursday.

"I don't see the leadership forward. I see the leadership back and sideways," said Liberal house leader Laurie Blakeman, a day after the legislature wrapped up its first sitting under Prentice.

"It's definitely going hard right. He is chasing that right vote."

The house sat for 15 days over the last four weeks. It passed legislation to clean up government and pulled back on controversial rules for gay students setting up school friendship clubs.

Prentice took over in September from scandal-plagued former premier Alison Redford. She quit the top job in March ahead of a party and caucus revolt over, among other issues, lavish spending on herself and her inner circle.

Prentice promised new rules to clean up government and on Wednesday the house passed the Alberta Accountability Act. It expands conflict-of-interest guidelines for political staff and extends a cooling-off period for those who leave government, but want to come back later to lobby or work for it.

It also restricts the amount of severance that can be paid to departing staff and changes the rules to assure a more level playing field for companies bidding on government work.

But the severance and procurement changes aren't contained in legislation. They are Treasury Board directives, meaning they can be changed on short notice by the governing Tories behind closed doors.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Prentice promised to put those changes in law. She called the watered-down law "all hat, no cattle."

"I've seen a clear pattern of over-promising and under-delivering (by Prentice)," said Notley.

"Overall, this session has been marked by a premier who has done nothing but undo the record of the previous premier. That, to me, is not vision. That's panicked issue management."

Notley called the session a "do-over" for the Tories.

Government house leader Jonathan Denis said the session was a success on both sides of the aisle, noting the Tories worked with the Opposition Wildrose party on an amendment to the Accountability Act.

The act sets a tone for politicians of all stripes to follow, he suggested.

"You can't make a rule for every possible situation and we do expect members to obey the law," said Denis.

Prentice's team also cancelled previously passed legislation — which had never been enacted — that rural landowners said gave the province wide latitude to expropriate their land for megaprojects while giving them little redress or adequate compensation.

The sitting saw a renewed, pitched battle over the rights of students to form gay-straight alliances. The alliances already exist in some public schools in Edmonton and Calgary.

They are friendship clubs for gay students and supportive classmates. Supporters say the clubs help gay students feel comfortable and protected and reduce bullying.

The Tories were criticized in the spring when some joined with Wildrose members to defeat a non-binding motion supporting the alliances.

The battle arose again this fall when Blakeman brought in a private member's bill that would have forced all schools to accept gay-straight-alliances.

The government countered with a hastily written bill of its own that knocked Blakeman's off the order paper while not mandating schools accept the clubs.

As public anger over the Tory bill grew on social media, the party amended it to say that the government would set up the clubs if a school refused.

Critics said forcing students off school grounds was akin to the segregation of blacks in the United States in the middle of the last century.

Prentice put the bill on hold pending further consultation and admitted that in trying to strike the right compromise he had made the issue worse.

Notley said that while Prentice projects himself as fiscally conservative and socially progressive, the issue revealed he is conservative on both counts.

Denis disagreed.

"I definitely see a shift with Prentice as premier towards a more common-sense conservative perspective, to governance which I think is in line with many Albertans," he said.

The house was also home to musical chairs.

Before the sitting began, Wildrose member Joe Anglin quit to sit as an Independent ahead of a caucus vote to oust him. Leader Danielle Smith described him as a loose cannon and accused him of secretly taping them. Anglin denied it and Smith offered no proof.

The Wildrose lost two more members when Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan crossed the floor to join Prentice, saying they believed in where he was taking the province.

Overshadowing the session was a steep drop in oil prices, taking the driver of Alberta's economy from a high of US$100 a barrel in the summer to $60 a barrel this week.

Prentice has promised to balance the budget in the current fiscal year, but has also warned that hard times and belt-tightening are coming if oil does not rebound.

Smith said Prentice needs to institute some fundamental changes to untie Alberta's spending from world pricing.

"This is not business as usual and this PC government can no longer pin its hopes on a return to $100 oil," said Smith in a statement Thursday.