Tag Archives: Gene Zwozdesky

Secrecy of foster care deaths a sobering story

The normally hyper-partisan atmosphere in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly was sobered today with news of a tragic and startling story.

Dave Hancock MLA Edmonton-Whitemud

Dave Hancock

A six-month investigation by Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald reporters based on death records unsealed after a four-year legal battle revealed a startling number of unreported deaths of children in care of the province between 1999 and 2009. The investigation found 145 foster children have died since 1999, nearly three times more than the 56 deaths revealed in government annual reports during that time.  According to the report, at least 74 of these 145 children who died while in foster care were Aboriginal or Métis.

While this story raises serious questions about transparency and why the government would keep these numbers from the public, there are still unanswered questions about how this number compares to other provinces and how it compares to children not in foster care.

Opposition parties in the Assembly united in support for a motion introduced Wildrose MLA Jeff Wilson this afternoon to hold an emergency debate and a public inquiry into these deaths.

Rachel Notley Edmonton MLA Strathcona NDP

Rachel Notley

Human Services Minister Dave Hancock argued against holding an emergency debate, claiming that the  government had acted to protect the privacy of the children and their families by not releasing the full number of children who died in foster care. Mr. Hancock also claimed that recent legislative changes made by the government, including the creation of the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate, would ensure these numbers would not be kept secret in the future.

After a brief legislative wrangle over whether to hold an emergency debate, Assembly Speaker Gene Zwozdesky ruled against the idea.

Wildrose official opposition leader Danielle Smith: “These truly disturbing revelations not only mean that something is seriously wrong with how vulnerable children are cared for in this province, but that there are major gaps in how incidents are being reported. We must get to the bottom of what it is and begin the long process of fixing the system. If we aren’t reviewing these deaths and doing everything we can to learn from them, we are failing Albertans and risking the lives of vulnerable children.”

Gene Zwozdesky

Gene Zwozdesky

New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley: “This government is more concerned with protecting themselves from their own record on kids in care than in actually protecting those kids. But these kids deserve better—and so do Albertans. With this government’s cuts to the services that families living in poverty depend on, more children will likely end up in government care. We need to ensure that the system isn’t failing these kids.”

Liberal opposition leader Raj Sherman: “If the number of deaths of children in care was underreported, then the number of children seriously injured while in government care was very likely underreported as well. What is very clear now is that this Conservative government has failed in its most basic duty to protect some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, children at risk. Only a fraction of the 145 deaths were deemed worthy of an investigation. In cases where reviews were completed, recommendations were not followed.”

As leader of the party that has formed government in Alberta since 1971, Premier Alison Redford cannot take any position less than one that directly addresses this issue. Anything less will raise serious questions about the competency of the current government.

Regardless of the original reasons why these deaths were unreported, it is important that the government come forward and provide a clear explanation as to why these cases were kept secret. As Albertans, we have a responsibility to protect our most vulnerable citizens, particularly those in care and especially children.

Who’s the boss? Fred Horne and Stephen Lockwood spar over AHS performance pay.

“Regardless of how people feel about the decision of the AHS board, I don’t think anybody would want me or a colleague to interfere with the terms of their employment they’ve agreed to. It’s a decision for the AHS board.” – Health Minister Fred Horne on Alberta Health Services performance pay (Edmonton Journal, March 28, 2013)

Health Minister Fred Horne did exactly the opposite yesterday when he issued a statement calling on the Alberta Health Services Board to withhold performance pay for its executives. In response, AHS board chairman and trucking magnate Stephen Lockwood rebuked the minister’s statement and the appointed board voted to move forward with the performance payments at a meeting in Calgary.

Fred-Horne-Alberta

Fred Horne

This issue has become a political problem for Premier Alison Redford‘s government. Unlike the government’s relationship with school boards, Albertans do not seem to perceive a difference between AHS and the Government. This has left many Albertans confused as to why the health authority is eliminating frontline staff while senior executives collect bonuses.

When it comes to picking his battles, I am not sure that Mr. Lockwood could have picked a issue where he was more off-side with public opinion.

But will this burst of independence last? The political showdown could come to an abrupt end this morning, when the government is expected to hold a press conference in response to AHS’s decision to approve the payments. The Calgary Herald’s Don Braid writes that Mr. Lockwood’s time as board chair could end today.

Of course, this is not the first time the government has demonstrated its influence over the supposedly arms-length agency.

Stephen Lockwood Alberta Health Services

Stephen Lockwood

In 2010, then-Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky pressed the AHS board to fire CEO and President Stephen Duckett after his infamous “I’m eating a cookie” incident. Dr. Duckett’s departure helped deflect other criticisms the government was facing at the time over Emergency Room wait-times and the suspension of its former legislative assistant for health, Raj Sherman.

The chairman of the AHS board at the time of Dr. Duckett’s firing was Ken Hughes, who is now a Tory MLA and Minister of Energy.

Remind me again why some people perceive the government and AHS as being the same thing?

UPDATE: I guess we now know who the boss is. Minister Horne has fired the entire AHS board over the bonuses issue.

Laurie Blakeman now the longest-serving opposition MLA and other #ableg milestones.

Laurie Blakeman MLA Edmonton-Centre

Laurie Blakeman

This week Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman was recognized in the Legislative Assembly as being the “longest-serving member to serve exclusively in opposition in Alberta’s history. Ms. Blakeman was elected on March 11, 1997 and, as Speaker Gene Zwozdesky noted, she has served continuously since that time for a total of 5,876 days over the course of five-terms.

Gene Zwozdesky

Gene Zwozdesky

Ms. Blakeman surpassed David Duggan, who served in opposition from June 28, 1926, to May 4, 1942, for a total of 5,790 days. A historical irony is that had Speaker Zwozdesky, who was first elected as a Liberal in 1993, not crossed the floor to the Progressive Conservatives in 1998, he would now own this new record.

According to my estimation, the longest-serving opposition MLA who did not serve exclusively in opposition, is Walt Buck. Mr. Buck represented Clover Bar in the Social Credit government from 1967 to 1971 and in the Social Credit opposition from 1971 until 1982, as an Independent MLA from 1982 until 1984, and as a Representative Party MLA from 1984 until his retirement from politics in 1989. Mr. Buck recently passed away.

Here are some other Alberta Legislature milestones:

What to expect in the spring sitting? Dirt, mud, and more dirt.

Alberta Legislative Assembly Building

Alberta’s Legislative Assembly Building (sans covered dome).

After a three-month break, Members of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly will gather today in Edmonton to start the spring sitting.

The commencement of this year’s first sitting will be unusual in that it will lack the traditional pomp and circumstance that comes with a Speech from the Throne. Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell will not be invited to deliver a traditional Speech from the Throne today. The lack of Throne Speech or accompanying flagship legislation will mean a focus on the provincial budget, to be tabled on March 7. This, of course, is a deliberate move by the Tories.

Doug Horner

Doug Horner

Finance Minister Doug Horner will table the provincial government’s 2013/2014 budget on Thursday, and many political watchers are wondering what the document will include.

Over the past two months, Minister Horner and Premier Alison Redford have managed to communicate that Alberta has a revenue problem, a pipeline problem (also known as the unfortunately named ‘Bitumen Bubble’), and finally a spending problem.

Over the past week, numerous groups, including the Parkland Institute, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Alberta Federation of Labour, have released reports and survey’s demonstrating the need to reform Alberta’s revenue system.

The Premier mused about tax increases, and then ruled them out. All these mixed signals will make this week’s budget announcement a highly watched spectacle.

The continuation of the sitting also means that a handful of private members bills left over from last year’s sitting will return to the Assembly floor for debate this spring. These bills were introduced last year by opposition and backbench government MLAs.

Gene Zwozdesky

Gene Zwozdesky

This will be the second sitting of the Assembly since Edmonton-Mill Creek MLA Gene Zwozdesky was selected as Speaker by his peers. While generally seen as a fair chairman of the Assembly, Speaker Zwozdesky was highly criticized for ruling that Premier Redford did not mislead the Assembly over last year’s tobacco-gate scandal.

Watch Premier Redford focus on her strengths, like advocating on the national stage for a Canadian energy plan and for opening new markets for Alberta’s oil – like the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. As demonstrated throughout her first year in office, Premier Redford is much more effective at being a provincial advocate than being a provincial politician.

Do not expect to hear cabinet ministers or government MLAs make many comments about the fiascos that wreaked havoc for the Tories last fall. Ongoing investigations by Chief Elections Officer O. Brian Fjeldheim, retired Justice John Vertes, ethics commissioner Neil Wilksonson, and Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton will give the Tories a legitimate excuse to say “no comment.”

Will the Wildrose drive the agenda?

Danielle Smith Alberta Wildrose Party leader Election 2012

Danielle Smith

In the fall sitting of the Assembly, the newly minted Wildrose Official Opposition ran circles around the large Tory majority. It seemed like every day Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson would have a new scandal or leaked documents to throw at the Tories like a live grenade.

Mirroring the tactics of the federal Conservatives in Ottawa, the Wildrose have brought a more aggressive and hyper-partisan approach than Albertans are used to from their opposition parties.

The official opposition launched a new website and series of radio ads to coincide with the budget debate, asking for Albertans feedback on the fiscal situation. While it is hard to fault the official opposition for their outreach, it is difficult to imagine the Wildrose will change their conservative ideological bent based on this mini-public relations campaign.

Three years ahead of the next election, a new online poll released by ThinkHQ shows the Wildrose leading the Tories 36% to 28%. The New Democrats and Liberals were distant from the pack at 16% and 13%. While the poll should be taken with a grain of salt, the mixed messages about provincial finances, recent conflict with Alberta’s teachers and uber-popular Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi are not likely working to help the Tories’ cause.

Brian Mason Alberta NDP leader Election 2012

Brian Mason

Lost in the fray during the fall sitting, these two parties need to remind Albertans that they are still there. Can the New Democrats and former official opposition Liberals succeed in reasserting themselves in the Assembly? I would not count them out.

The four-MLA NDP caucus just finished their province-wide “Broken Promises Tour”, highlighting what leader Brian Mason claims are a string of broken promises from the Tories since last year’s election. Liberal leader Raj Sherman has come out with a string of media releases criticizing the Tories.

Both parties hope that a provincial budget harsh on public services will remind Albertans of the differences between their parities and the governing Tories. The centre-rightish Liberal Party saw a mass exodus of supporters vote for Premier Redford’s Tories in last year’s election to block the Wildrose from forming government. It worked too well for the Tories, leaving the Liberals with a small five MLA caucus.

Last fall, the Wildrose Official Opposition danced circles around the governing Tories. Daily attacks from the Wildrose left the Tories stumbling and stammering to respond. New faces in the Premier’s Communications Office have already brought a more aggressive and partisan tone to their media releases and responses to opposition criticism online. This sitting, expect to see the Tories to counter the Wildrose attacks by taking a more aggressive approach to defending Premier Redford’s political agenda. That means dirt, mud, and more dirt.

Wildrose MLAs stage walk out during dramatic tobacco conflict.

Question Period at Alberta's Legislative Assembly

Another hour of Question Period in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. Another circus event for political watchers.

Theatric and dramatic antics dominated this afternoon’s hour-long Question Period in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly.

To start the drama, the official opposition Wildrose Caucus raised a point of personal privilege claiming that Premier Alison Redford misled the Assembly by claiming she did not choose the law firm involved in a $10 billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry (the Premier’s ex-husband is a partner at a law firm awarded a government contract in the lawsuit).

Soon after raising the point of privilage, Assembly Speaker Gene Zwozdesky overruled and denied Danielle Smith and her Wildrose MLAs an opportunity to ask any questions related to the Premier’s alleged conflict of interest in the tobacco lawsuit. In response, most of the 17 MLA Wildrose caucus stormed out of the Assembly Chamber in protest (the dramatic effect was lessened when a number of Wildrose MLAs quickly returned to their seats in order to ask questions not related to the tobacco conflict claims).

In a bizarre twist, Speaker Zwozdesky held up a Government of Alberta press release as evidence that the Premier did not mislead the Assembly because the final decision to select the law firm was signed by her successor, then-Justice Minister and current Agriculture Minster Verlyn Olson. The Speaker then declared that it matters not whether the Premier selected the law firm, she did not mislead the Assembly because her successor signed the contract.

(I just had a Bill Clinton flashback).

Gary Bikman Shill

Wildrose MLA Gary Bikman’s handmade signage.

Taking full advantage of the attention of the Twittersphere and the Press Gallery, the Wildrose Party cried foul and complained that the ruling was an affront to democracy (Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Gary Bikman wrote “SHILL” on the back of his notebook, leaving political watchers to suspect the message was directed at Speaker Zwozdesky). Tories claimed the rookie Wildrose MLAs simply did not understand the rules of Westminster-style parliamentary procedure.

Meanwhile, New Democrat leader Brian Mason escalated his party’s call for Premier Redford to step down (a demand which she is unlikely to acquiesce). Liberal leader Raj Sherman clumsily attempted to tie the Premier’s decision not to step down with the suspension of Gary Mar, Alberta’s envoy to Hong Kong, earlier this year. Premier Redford suspended Mr. Mar from his duties overseas after allegations that former Tory leadership candidate used his title to raise money to pay-off his political debts (he was reinstated after the election).

Since entering office, Premier Redford has tended to initially respond slowly to political crises confronting her party and respond decisively once the issue has become a political problem. Whether it be the infamous No-Meet Committee, the never ending MLA pay issues, the Allaudin Merali expense fiasco, the Tories default strategy appears to be to ignore the issue in hopes that it will disappear.

It has been five days since CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell first reported on the Premier’s alleged conflict of interest and the Tories are still stumbling through a public relations debacle that should have been easy to resolve.

Whether or not Premier Redford is in an actual conflict of interest, the Tories are doing a good job looking guilty and the opposition is only happy to help them on their way.

Wildrose Party wages permanent negative campaign against Redford Tories.

Alberta Wildrose Party Negative Ad

A yet to be released negative ad from the Wildrose Party.

The Wildrose Party is running a permanent negative campaign against the long-governing Progressive Conservative Party. Not taking time to break after their defeat in the May 2012 election, Danielle Smith and her 16 Wildrose MLAs are pushing hard to make Alison Redford’s Tories look corrupt and un-conservative.

Taking a more aggressive approach than their predecessors in the official opposition benches, the Wildrose have stunned the Tories into a stammer. Relentlessly berating the Tories for taking new approaches towards capital financing, the Wildrose Party are doing their best to cast the Tories as Conservatives in Name Only (CINOs). Gary Bikman, the Wildrose MLA from the deep rural south Cardston-Taber-Warner constituency, has started referring to the Tories as the “Progressive Party” on his Facebook Page.

The opposition is limited in the tactics available to them, so Wildrose MLAs use the “open-mic” available in Question Period to launch unrelenting attacks against Tory cabinet ministers. Taking a cue from the federal Conservatives in Ottawa, preambles to questions asked by Wildrose MLAs are now typically little more than negative partisan attacks. Considering the strong connections between the Wildrose Party and the Ottawa Conservatives, it is not surprising that they would adopt a similar strategy.

Here is a sample of a typical question asked by a Wildrose MLA during Question Period:

Mr. Speaker, this government has mismanaged our ___________ for years: illegal donations from ___________, outrageous expenses on ___________. Albertans are saying that they’ve had enough of the abuse from this government and enough of living in the most oppressive, intimidating environment that anyone could find themselves in. Will the Minister of ___________ finally recognize that years of systemic waste, abuse, intimidation, and disrespect on the part of this government have led to this crisis situation and immediately change his course of action and start addressing the obvious concerns of Albertans?

Short translation: “Mr. Speaker, can the Minister tell me why he is so awful at his job?

Anyone who has watched Question Period will know that it always includes a certain level of partisan rhetoric, but the level the level of partisan rhetoric has dramatically increased since the Wildrose MLAs formed official opposition this year. For example, earlier this week Two Hills-St. Paul-Lac La Biche Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw was called out for insinuating that the Premier’s sister, Lynn Redford, was a criminal (our justice system still operates under the presumption of innocence in this country).

It is a cynical approach towards politics. Not winning by offering better ideas or stronger leadership but by dragging your opponents deeper into the mud.

Speaker Gene Zwozdesky and Vermilion-Lloydminster Tory MLA Richard Starke have pleaded for decorum in the Assembly. But with the opposition MLAs unlikely to change their tactics, not all members of the Tory cabinet are willing to be great contributors to a reasoned debate.

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who has been charged as the Question Period attack dog, strikes back at the Wildrose MLAs with ease. The Deputy Premier recently accused Ms. Smith of throwing her party’s candidates and Albertans under a bus. As any veteran opposition politician can attest, the Tories have not been in power for forty-one uninterrupted years by “being nice.”

Albertans tired of the rhetoric from this year’s elections should settle in and accept the reality that the negative campaign did not end on April 23, 2012. This campaign will continue until at least the next election.