Alberta Politics

COVID-19 overtakes plummeting oil prices as biggest worry in Alberta this week

A week ago, Alberta’s politicians were reeling from another spectacular drop in the international price of oil and debating what that could mean for the province’s budget. Coronavirus, or COVID-19, felt like a distant threat seven days ago, but that is not the case tonight.

The provincial government announced today that all classes at Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools and in-person classes at post-secondary institutions are cancelled until further notice and that daycares and pre-schools would be closed as measures to avoid spreading the virus, which has been confirmed to have infected 56 Albertans.

The closures will certainly send many families scrambling to make childcare arrangements for tomorrow morning, but was likely a necessary decision.

The City of Calgary has declared a local state of emergency, though city manager David Duckworth is quoted as saying that, as of Tuesday, City employees who need to stay home to look after their children will have to use banked time or vacation time. This feels like the kind of unpopular decision that the City will be forced to walk back in the next 48 hours, similar to the public shaming the Calgary Flames received over the weekend.

Working Albertans forced to stay home because they are sick or need to take care of their children because of the school closures should not only be assured their job security, they should be assured their pay.

A period of social distancing is upon us and it is necessary.

The House of Commons and other provincial legislatures have announced plans to suspend their current sittings in order to avoid playing a role in spreading the virus. Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, the wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was diagnosed with COVID-19. Edmonton Members of Parliament Michael Cooper and Kerry Diotte recently attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C., where an attendee was later diagnosed with COVID-19.

Political watchers in Alberta will be watching to see if similar measures are taken when our Alberta Legislature reconvenes tomorrow.

The United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney is in the midst of pushing its budget through the legislative committee process, but the decline in the price of oil, the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s decision today to pour an additional $500 million into public health care, means the budget tabled by Finance Minister Travis Toews two weeks ago is unrecognizable and unneeded.

The UCP government should completely halt its austerity agenda of cuts and layoffs, which has already resulted in thousands of public sector job cuts, and focus on supporting Alberta’s public sector workers as they play a critical role in facing this global pandemic.

What should Albertans do?

Listen and trust the advice of public health professionals. Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw continues to do an excellent job presenting her daily public updates in a clear, concise and plain-spoken manner.

It is important for all of us to take this situation seriously.

Practice social distancing, stay home if you are sick, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, clean your phone. Just as importantly, be kind and reach out to friends, family and neighbours who might be having a difficult time. We can get through this.

Also, pick up your phone, call or email your MLA and tell the government to stop picking fights with Alberta’s nurses, doctors, and health care workers – the public sector workers on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alberta Politics

Big population growth means it’s time to redraw Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries

Alberta’s population has grown by 517,365 since the last time our provincial electoral boundaries were redrawn to reflect population growth. According to population estimates released on the provincial government’s Open Data portal this week, Alberta’s population reached 4,196,457 in 2015, up from population estimates of 3,679,092 in 2009, the last time boundaries were redistributed.

Over this six year period, Alberta’s two largest cities saw a huge population spike, with Edmonton growing from a population of 817,867 in 2009 to 950,421 in 2015 and Calgary from 1,107,192 to 1,293,023. Sixty-one percent of the province’s population growth is estimated to have moved to Calgary and Edmonton during this time.

According to these estimates, the combined population of Calgary and Edmonton represents 53 percent of Alberta’s population.

Population Growth in Calgary

While most of the province’s growth is estimated to have been in the two big cities, Alberta’s medium-sized municipalities have also grown. According to the population estimates, Strathcona County grew from 92,299 in 2009 to 107,104 in 2015, Airdrie grew from 38,704 in 2009 to 50,257 in 2015, St. Albert grew from 62,563 in 2009 to 71,096 in 2015, and Wood Buffalo grew from 63,376 in 2009 to 77,804 in 2015.

Some smaller rural communities, like Hanna, Oyen, Starland County, Stettler County, Swan Hills, and the town and county of Provost, actually saw a decline in the population since the electoral boundaries were last redrawn, according to the estimates.

Population Growth in Edmonton

In order to reflect this significant population shift, the Government of Alberta should take action to ensure the electoral boundaries are redrawn before the next provincial election, which is scheduled to be held between March 1 and May 31, 2019. Redrawing the province’s electoral boundaries to reflect population growth will ensure that Albertans receive more effective representation in the Legislative Assembly after the next election.

The 2009/2010 Electoral Boundary Commission estimated that the average population of Alberta’s 87 electoral districts was 40,880. Using the same formula, the average population according to 2015 population estimates would be 48,235, which is very close to 51,100 maximum allowable population in each electoral district (25 percent above the 2009 average).

As I wrote in Sept. 2015, Section 5 of the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act states that a commission be appointed following every second election and a minimum of eight years and maximum of ten years since the previous commission. Two elections have been held since the last commission was appointed only seven years ago. This timeline was skewed when Progressive Conservative leader Jim Prentice called an election one year earlier than was set in Alberta’s fixed election date law.

According to a statement made by Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler on Sept. 24, 2015, the currently existing legal timeline would not give the commission and Elections Alberta staff enough time to prepare for the 2019 election. Mr. Resler told an MLA committee that he would recommend the government introduce an amendment to the Act to shorten the timeline so a commission can be appointed before the eight year minimum period.

The government should amend the timeline to ensure the electoral boundaries are redrawn before the next provincial election. The government should also make changes other sections of the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act that would create a more fair process of drawing electoral districts and remove partisan appointments to the commission (I wrote about some of the changes that should be made in an earlier post).

The final report from the 2009/2010 Electoral Boundaries Commission included a handful of recommendations for future commissions:

  • The Legislative Assembly needs to seriously consider how urban and rural perspectives will be addressed in the future.
  • The Legislative Assembly should consider reassessing the resources allocated for constituency offices.
  • Future commissions should be appointed early in the calendar year.
  • The Legislative Assembly may wish to consider adopting a protocol for the naming of electoral divisions for the guidance of future commissions.