When discussing public health care in Alberta, there is a lot to be said about the lack of stability in the system over the past twenty years. I have found that much of the recent media coverage around Alberta Health Services and emergency room wait times has neglected to mention the long-term effects of the lack of stability as some of the root causes of these problems.
For example, by my count, over the past 16 years, there have been 11 different Deputy Ministers of Health, some permanent and some acting. When it comes to staffing, the health care system is still recovering from the cuts in the 1990s that eliminated or downgraded over 10,000 employees. When it comes to the administration of local health authorities, there has been a constant state of provincial government initiated restructuring over the past fifteen years:
1995: Around 200 hospital boards, public health units, long term care boards and facilities were joined together under 17 Regional Health Authorities (RHA) filled with appointed board members. 2001: The 17 RHA were merged into nine. This is the first year that a third of the RHA boards were elected, which took place in conjunction with the municipal elections. 2003: The 1/3 RHA boards members were terminated and replaced with completely appointed board members. 2008: The 9 remaining RHAs were dissolved and the Alberta Health Services superboard was appointed.
You would be hard pressed to find any Albertan who would characterize AHS as perfect, but considering all constant overhauls that have been happening in our health care system, maybe its time for some stability? In my mind, a return to regional control would be ideal, but it would need to be gradual and not as recklessly hasty as the merger that created AHS.
Do not to confuse stability with political control.
In the Alberta Legislature this week, MLAs are debating a new piece of legislation, Bill 17: The Alberta Health Act. Bill 17 is filled with vague, yet nice-sounding language, like the establishment of a Health Charter and the appointment of a Health Advocate, but what does this really mean?
A quick read of the Alberta Health Act will show that while a Health Charter may sound impressive, it is not the kind of “charter” that most Albertans would expect it to be. Rather than being a legally-binding document, it will be open to changes through Order-in-Council (or a vote at a closed-door cabinet meeting). The Health Advocate will not be an independent officer of the Assembly, but an employee of the Government of Alberta who will report to the Minister of Health & Wellness.
As a piece of “enabling legislation” the Alberta Health Act would move a number of other decison-making powers behind closed doors, including allowing the Minister of Health & Wellness to create regulations “respecting the roles and responsibilities of (regional health authorities, provincial health boards and professional colleges)” and “respecting the designation of other persons as health providers.” Under current legislation, these changes would need to be made through legislation and public debate. Not so under the Alberta Health Act.
The changes proposed in this legislation were apparently the result of a months long province-wide consultation led by Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne. I am not sure who Mr. Horne consulted, but I do not know many Albertans who would list a non-binding Health Charter and more authority to cabinet ministers as their priorities for health care.
(Jonathan Teghtmeyer has written an excellent analysis about why Albertans should be concerned about the changes in the Alberta Health Act.)
Running in a November 13 by-election in the Town of Shelburne, Nova Scotia is someone who may be familiar to Alberta’s political watchers, but under a different name.
Former Edmonton-Castle Downs MLA Pamela Paul, now known as Pamela Snelgrove-Paul and also formerly known as Pamela Smith, Pamela Smith-Paul, and Pamela Paul-Zobaric has jumped into local politics in her new home of in Nova Scotia.
As a Liberal candidate in 1997, she was narrowly elected by 83 votes and served as the Official Opposition critic for advanced education until she left the Liberal Caucus to sit as an Independent MLA in 1999. She did not seek re-election in 2001, but endorsed her friend and fellow former Liberal MLA Gene Zwozdesky, who was running as a PC candidate in that election.
As an MLA, Ms. Snelgrove-Paul had her personal experiences with domestic violence play out in the media. During her time as an MLA, special security arrangements were made around the Legislature to protect her from her stalking ex-husband, who was eventually sentenced to a year in jail.
Previous to her election as an MLA, Ms. Snelgrove-Paul had served as an Alderman in the City of St. Albert and a school trustee in Drumheller.
Like many jobs, being an MLA comes with some perks. I do not have a problem with MLAs taking advantage of some of these perks, but it is a matter of judging whether accepting the gifts would put the MLA into a conflict of interest. A ticket to a sporting event or concert might fly under the radar, but an extravagant golfing or fishing vacation begins to present some larger image and integrity issues. While there is nothing scandalous in these disclosures and some of these gifts may seem small on the surface, Albertans should pay attention to who is wooing their elected officials.
Finance Minister Ted Morton was living life to the fullest when he accepted invitations to go Salmon fishing and golfing in British Columbia with wealthy businessman Fred Mannix (Former Premier Peter Lougheed severed as General Council to the Mannix Corporation before entering politics). Not to be outdone, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky also accepted a golfing vacation in Victoria, BC as a gift from Telus.
It is a mystery to me why Hemisphere Engineering decided to pay room and board for Edmonton-Calder Tory backbencher Doug Elniski to fish for Salmon in Campbell River, BC, but they did. Hemisphere Engineering donated over $27,000 to the PC Party and candidates in 2008 and over $18,000 to the PC Party and constituency associations in 2009.
The disclosure forms also revealed that one Edmonton Tory MLA had neglected to pay his property taxes on four rental properties that he owned. When questioned by the media, classy Carl Benito, the backbench Tory MLA from Edmonton-Mill Woods, actually put the blame on his wife for not having paid rent on his four rental properties. According to Mr. Benito, even though he filed his disclosure forms (including the part admitting he was behind on his property taxes), he still blamed his wife for not paying them until today.
This is not the first story we have heard from this backbencher. Mr. Benito was in the media spotlight earlier this year when it was revealed that he had no intention to fulfill a campaign promise to donate his entire MLA salary to scholarships for students in his constituency. I am sure that some people in the PC Party are eager to hit the “eject” button on this embarrassing backbench MLA.
Showing some seriously questionable taste in music, it was also revealed that Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk was gifted two tickets to a recent Lady Gaga concert by Edmonton Northlands and that Education Minister Dave Hancock was gifted two tickets to a Rod Stewart concert by AltaLink. I tweeted to Minister Hancock yesterday asking what his favorite Rod Stewart song was. I did not get a response, so this is for you, Minister.
It was supposed to be a boring week in Alberta politics. What was billed as a low-key and low-substance return of the Assembly for its fall sitting may still be lacking on substance, but it is not as low-key as most political watchers expected.
The Wizard of Zwoz introduces the Alberta Health Act
Health and Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky introduced Bill 17: The Alberta Health Act this afternoon. The Alberta Health Act has been a target of health care advocates since Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne embarked on a province-wide road trip to “consult” Albertans on the proposed Act. The Edmonton Journal’s Sheila Pratt interviewed many of the people at these meetings, yet none of the criticism she discovered was reported in Mr. Horne’s committee’s final report. Minister Zwozdesky’s introductory speech was quick to target opposition to the Bill, which could open the door to further privatization after the next election.
Liberal Point of Order awaits Alberta Health Act
Minister Zwozdesky probably hoped to impress the opposition with his oratory introduction but it did not take long for Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman was less than impressed. Ms. Blakeman was quick to pounce after the Health Minister’s speech, raising a point of order accusing him of improperly using the time allotted for him during the Bill’s first reading. Speaker Ken Kowalski was not amused. He rarely is these days.
Wildrose fundraises and attracts a familiar face
Speaking in front of a crowd of 800 guests, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith held her largest fundraiser yet in Calgary this week (the question and answer period was hosted by 630 CHED host Dave Rutherford). The Wildrose Alliance announced the nomination of three more candidates this week. Against the other opposition parties leaders, Shane McAllister will stand in Calgary-Mountainview and Wayde Lever in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood. In the new Calgary-Greenway, 2008 independent/jettisoned PC candidate Ron Leech who will carry the Wildrose banner against rookie PC MLA Manmeet Bhullar. Mr. Bhullar squeaked out a win against Pastor Leech in 2008 when the local PC constituency organization was in disarray following the retirement of long-time MLA Hung Pham. Pastor Leech was originally nominated by the local PC association, but was removed and replaced by the appointed Mr. Bhullar.
Leaky Fawcett to stand in Calgary-Klein
PC backbencher Kyle Fawcett proposed an amendment to the Electoral Boundaries Commission Final Report that would have his constituency of Calgary-North Hillre-namedCalgary-Klein in the next provincial election (in honour of former Premier Ralph Klein). Mr. Fawcett (known as “Leaky Fawcett” in some political circles) got his wish. Other new constituency names are Strathcona (which will be known as Strathcona-Sherwood Park) and Calgary-Montrose (which will be known as Calgary-Greenway).
The member of four political parties will be gathering for official party functions over the next month. Starting today, the Progressive Conservative’s will be meeting for their policy convention in Calgary. The NDP will be holding their Annual Convention in Red Deer on November 5, 6, and 7. The Alberta Liberals will be electing a new party President, Vice-President Policy, and Secretary at their Annual General Meeting scheduled for November 27 in Red Deer. The new kid on the political block, the Alberta Party will be holding their policy convention on November 13. Here is a video from their recent Annual General Meeting:
Alberta’s Legislative Assembly resumes for Fall Sitting in a constantly changing political environment.
As the leaves fall and winter approaches, so does the resumption of the venerable institution known as the Alberta Legislative Assembly. Much has changed since last year’s Fall Sitting in Edmonton.
When MLAs return to the Assembly next Monday, they will have a few unfinished business to continue. The summer months have been far from quiet on Alberta’s political landscape. Premier Ed Stelmach has focused on promoting the oilsands to both audiences internationally and at home, including a tour with Hollywood Film Director James Cameron.
The Alberta Health Act will likely be the most contentious piece of legislation introduced in this sitting of the Assembly. Originally framed as a replacement for already existing pieces of health care legislation, the PC Government has since backed off after receiving an earful from Albertans in province-wide consultation meetings. The previously expected Alberta Health Act may be a shell of what it was envisioned to be when it is introduced in the next few weeks, but it could leave the door open for further legislative reforms (after the next election?).
At a media conference yesterday, Minister Gene Zwozdesky accepted recommendations from the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health, led by Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne, but used his time to take a defensive stance against his critics. Minister Zwozdesky and Mr. Horne were also unable to fully explain the purpose of their proposed non-legally-binding Health Charter when questioned by reporters. The purpose of the new Alberta Health Act was challenged by Edmonton-Riverview MLA and Liberal Health Critic Kevin Taft, who labelled the Health Charter idea as “vacant” and predicted that the new Act “will be filled with platitudes that have no legal standing and have no recourse.”
I fully expect a continuation of the blood fued between the Wildrose Caucus and Assembly Speaker Ken Kowalski to continue over the next session. Since the Wildrose Caucus grew to three MLAs with the floor-crossing of Mr. Anderson and Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Heather Forsyth in January 2010, Speaker Kowalski has used his power on the Members’ Services Committee to block any further increases in funding to the now third party caucus (the two MLA NDP Caucus still receives more funding that the 3 MLA Wildrose Caucus) and even demand that Danielle Smith‘s name be removed from media releases. Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutilier joined the Wildrose Alliance Party in June 2010, but has remained as an Independent MLA in order to secure more research and communications funding (when he officially joins the Wildrose Caucus next week, their combined funding will decrease).
Since last session, the Wildrose have declared war on Speaker Kowalski outside the Assembly by nominating Senator-in-Waiting Link Byfield as their candidate in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock. Speaker Kowalski has represented variations of that constituency since 1979. Mr. Byfield has been endorsed by former Conservative Members of Parliament John Williams and David Chatters.
Not to be outdone by the insurgent Wildrosers, the PC Party will be holding their Annual Convention in Calgary on October 29 and 30. I am told by a number of sources that the Convention will also serve as the kickoff for a series of “discussion sessions” with PC Party members billed as Speak Easies which will attempt to reconnect the party leadership with an increasingly disillusioned voter-base in the year before the party celebrates its fortieth year in government.
After a brutal Spring sitting that included the high-profile departure of Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor from the Official Opposition Caucus, Liberal Opposition leader David Swann is looking to improve his party’s position this Fall. Dr. Swann is attempting to hitch his horse close to the Reboot Alberta group, which has attracted many partisan and non-partisan activists to its ranks during its two previous gatherings. In an email sent out today from his Calgary-Mountain View constituency office email, Dr. Swann implored his supporters to join him in attending the next Reboot Alberta meeting in Edmonton on November 5 and 6.
The NDP Caucus is probably feeling rightfully jubilant for the election of their Director of Research, Sarah Hoffman, to the Edmonton Public School Board, but those feeling of excitement may be tempered as they enter the Fall Sitting short-staffed. In early October, Communications Director Brookes Merritt left the NDP Caucus to accept a job with the Government of Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau. Until they find a replacement, Chief of Staff Jim Gurnett is covering the Communications portfolio.
Outside the dome of the Assembly Building, there are some very real political changes happening. The new Alberta Party held its Annual General Meeting in Red Deer at the beginning of October and after months of touring the province holding Big Listen events, that party will hold their first policy convention in the same city on November 13.
The new Alberta Party has also moved forward with the hiring of their provincial organizer Michael Walters. The party will also undoubtedly benefit from having many of its members involved in recent municipal election campaigns, including Alberta Party Vice-President Chima Nkemdirim, who was the Campaign Director for Naheed Nenshi’s successful Mayoral campaign in Calgary. Mr. Walters was also heavily involved in the Election Day get out the vote organization that helped get Mayor Stephen Mandel re-elected in Edmonton.
Also not to be ignored is the role that the Wildrose Alliance played in recent municipal elections in the province’s two largest cities. The party has already hired organizers and been nominating candidates for the next provincial election, but leader Danielle Smith’s foray into the City Centre Airport issue in Edmonton and the Airport Tunnel issue in Calgary should not be ignored. Many Wildrose organizers active in the campaigns of Calgary Mayor candidate Ric McIver and Edmonton Mayor candidate David Dorward. While they may not walk away with voters lists, it is clear that they are taking advantage of any opportunity to get an organizational edge over the Progressive Conservatives in the next provincial election.
A lot of attention has been paid to Mayor-elect Nenshi’s victory in the Calgary Mayoral contest (and rightfully so), but he was not the only new Mayor elected on October 18. Seven of Alberta’s medium sized municipalities also elected new Mayor’s this week. In the north west city of Grande Prairie, Bill Given unseated Mayor Dwight Logan. East of Edmonton, Linda Osinchuk unseated Mayor Cathy Olesen to become Mayor of Strathcona County, Rajko Dodic was elected as the new Mayor of Lethbridge. Along the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary, Jeff Mulligan defeated incumbent Mayor Ken Baker in the City of Lloydminster. In the City of Wetaskiwin, Bill Elliot defeated incumbent Mayor Don Montgomery. In Airdrie, Peter Brown defeated incumbent Mayor Linda Bruce. In Alberta’s newest City, Steve Christie was elected Mayor of Lacombe, replacing the retiring Mayor Judy Gordon (who also served as the PC MLA for Lacombe-Stettler from 1993 to 2004). There was a lot of political change happening across Alberta on October 18, 2010. Of course, it is too soon to tell whether this will foreshadow a provincial election expected in March 2012.
The Fall Sitting of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly will likely open with a low level of substantive legislation and legislative debate, but outside the Dome there will be no shortage of new characters and exciting politics.
Yesterday in Edmonton, NDP leader Brian Mason joined retired health care aid Loretta Raiter as she described how funding cuts to long-term care have affected the quality of living for seniors at Salem Manor in Leduc. According to Mrs. Raiter, the funding crunch was so bad that People were sometimes given powdered meal replacements instead of real food and some patients ended up sitting for hours in soiled diapers. It is shameful and embarrassing when short-sighted financial decisions are put ahead of human dignity and quality of care.
An hour earlier in Calgary, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith stood with the operators of a bankrupt private health clinic and accused Alberta Health Services of reneging on a dealwith the facility. Ms. Smith then called on Health & Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky to intervene by using taxpayers dollars to prop up the private clinic which is stuck in a $65 million financial hole. In May 2010, Alberta Health Services stepped in to stop the bankruptcy proceedings and pay for the costs of a receiver to keep the centre operating in the interim. Alberta Health Services has many faults, but in this case they made the responsible decision by seeking to bring the staff and services of the private health clinic back into the public system.
I was glad to see Liberal MLA Kevin Taft jump into the fray and insert some common sense into this issue:
“I’m struck with how Danielle Smith jumps to the defence of a corporation instead of a defence of the taxpayer and patients who need quality care.”
Mr. Carpay finds himself squarely on the opposite side of public opinion according to a recent Ipsos-Reid poll which showed that less that 10% of Albertans would support more opportunities to pay for health services out of their own pockets. I understand that Mr. Carpay does not speak for his party, but as a candidate (and potentially a future MLA or cabinet minister) he will help shape his party’s position on health care.
The Wildrose Alliance has shown Albertans that they are not only prepared to stand with private health care operators, but that they are also prepared to use taxpayer dollars to bail them out when faulty business plans go awry.
Since Peter Lougheed catapulted from official opposition leader to Premier in 1971, Alberta’s opposition leadership have become a political graveyard for many well-intentioned and ambitious politicians. There are many reasons for this: Alberta’s tradition of electing large government majorities, the ability of the PC party to create a big-tent party, the unpopularity of opposition parties federal counterparts, and the trap of falling into an opposition mentality.
Dr. David Swann is one of many Albertans who have stepped up to the daunting task and challenge of leading a party in the divisive and dysfunctional world of opposition politics in Alberta. Calgary MLA Dave Taylor gave Dr. Swann a verbal lashing when he left the Liberal caucus earlier this past year and last week Tony Sansotta resigned as President after co-signing a letter with Dr. Swann appealing for cooperation with other opposition parties. To the untrained eye, it may look like the Liberal Party is on the verge of internal collapse and maybe it is, but I struggle to think of a time when Alberta has had an opposition party not rife with internal division.
Taking a quick look back at Alberta politics over the past twenty-five years, you will find opposition leaders that made positive contributions to Alberta politics, but could not withstand the meat-grinder of opposition politics in Alberta. A quick read of the list of individuals below could easily lead most Albertans to determine some of the most thankless jobs in our province indeed belong to leaders of provincial opposition parties.
Nick Taylor (Liberal leader, 1974 to 1988): He bravely led the Liberals through the darkness and proved that even in the height of the National Energy Program that Liberals had hope to win in Alberta. In 1979, Mr. Taylor placed only 355 votes behind PC candidate Ken Kowalski in a by-election in Barrhead. After six attempts at elected office since 1968, he was elected as MLA for Westlock-Sturgeon in 1986 and was only Leader of the Liberal Opposition in the Assembly for less than two years before his position was challenged by Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore and Edmonton MLA Grant Mitchell. He continued to serve as an MLA until 1996, when he was appointed to the Senate.
Rod Sykes (Social Credit leader, 1980 to 1982): After serving two terms as the Mayor of Calgary (1969-1977), Mayor Sykes took over the leadership of the Social Credit Party. After nine years in opposition, the party was mired with internal and financial problems which led him to resign in 1982. He later ran as a federal Liberal candidate in the 1984 election.
Ray Martin (NDP leader, 1984 to 1994): He led the New Democrats to its height as Official Opposition with 16 MLAs in 1986 and 1989, but that did not stop the internal bickering. Mr. Martin’s faced calls to resign from Calgary candidate Barry Bristman in 1989 and fought a leadership challenge by St. Paul veterinarian Don Ronaghan in 1991. In 1992, Stony Plain MLA Stan Woloshyn abandoned the NDP for the PCs. Mr. Martin resigned after his party lost all their seats to the Liberals and PCs in the Assembly in the 1993 election. He returned to the Assembly when he was elected as MLA for Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview from 2004 to 2008.
Laurence Decore (Liberal leader, 1988 to 1994): The former Edmonton Mayor built the best political machine an opposition party had seen since the 1970s, but that was not enough for some of the MLAs in his caucus-mates. In 1993, after the Liberals won their largest vote share with 39.7% and 32 seats, a group of MLAs and party members were not satisfied with official opposition status called for his resignation. Calgary-North West MLA Frank Bruseker was stripped of his major critic portfolios after telling reporters he was worried the party could not win enough seats in Calgary to secure an election win due to Mr. Decore’s leadership. Mr. Decore gracefully resigned in 1994.
Ross Harvey (NDP leader, 1994 to 1996): The former NDP Member of Parliament was selected as leader of the seatless party shortly after he was unseated in the 1993 federal election. He was unable to satisfactorily rebuild his party after it was wiped out in 1993 and quit in 1996. He was soon replaced by Pam Barrett.
Grant Mitchell (Liberal leader, 1994 to 1998): After a brutal and divisive leadership race in 1994, Mr. Mitchell faced opposition from within his own party and caucus. Three MLAs crossed to the PCs during his time as leader and his leadership opponent MLA Sine Chadi waged a constant campaign to undermine his leadership. Shortly after the 1997 election, former Calgary MLA Danny Dalla-Longa called for his resignation. He resigned in 1998 and in 2005 was appointed to the Senate.
Pam Barrett (NDP leader, 1996 to 2000): After serving as MLA for Edmonton-Highlands from 1986 to 1993, Ms. Barrett returned in 1996. She led her party to elect two MLAs in the 1997 election and later resigned after a near-death experience in a dentist’s chair.
Nancy MacBeth (Liberal leader, 1998 to 2001): After losing to Ralph Klein in the 1992 PC leadership race, Ms. MacBeth (then Ms. Betkowski) left politics until 1998 when she swept into the Liberal leadership. The former PC cabinet minister faced some tough opposition from MLAs within her party’s caucus, including two who crossed the floor (Gene Zwozdesky joined the PCs and Pamela Paul sat as an Independent). She resigned almost immediately after she was unseated in the 2001 election.
Randy Thorsteinson (Social Credit leader, 1992 to 1999, Alberta Alliance leader, 2003 to 2005). Even after leading the long-dormant Social Credit Party to win 6.8% of the vote in 1997, Mr. Thorsteinson was at odds with his party after a movement within the party to limit the involvement of members of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Thorsteinson quit the party in April 1999 and was a founder of the Alberta First Party. In 2003, he re-emerged as leader of the Alberta Alliance – the Wildrose Alliance‘s predecessor – and led that party to earn 8.7% of the vote in 2004. He resigned after failing to win a seat in the 2004 election.
Ken Nicol (Liberal leader, 2001 to 2004): Quiet, respected, and more conservative than most of his caucus colleagues, Dr. Nicol reluctantly accepted the leadership from the unseated Ms. MacBeth in 2001. He briefly led the Liberals until internal conflict from within his party and caucus convinced him that running as a federal Liberal candidate might be a better career option. He resigned as MLA in 2004 and was defeated in his bid represent Lethbridge in the House of Commons later that year.
Kevin Taft (Liberal leader, 2004 to 2008): The first Liberal leader to increase the party’s seat total since Mr. Decore, Dr. Taft led the Liberals through two elections. He tried to distance the provincial party from its unpopular federal counterparts and while he did not face as much internal dissent from his party and caucus as did his predecessors, he did have the unfortunate task of having to remove MLA Dan Backs from the Liberal caucus. He stepped down as leader after the 2008 election and is currently the opposition Health & Wellness critic.
Five backbench Tory MLAs voted today to deny the Wildrose Alliance increased funding for their now three MLA caucus. As the third largest party in the Assembly, the Wildroses receive $395,000, which is much less than the $561,000 received by the two MLA NDP Opposition and $1,537,000 received by the eight MLA Liberal Opposition. The Liberals and NDP supported the motion to increase funding for the Wildroses.
Until Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith is elected, an all-party committee of provincial politicians has decided her party’s caucus will not receive all potential funding.
“Until she steps up to the plate and runs for a position in the next election, we stay where we’re at,” Government Whip Robin Campbell said Monday afternoon.
The argument presented by Mr. Campbell is the continuation of the on-going political games that have been happening on the committee level at Alberta’s Legislative Assembly. While PC MLAs on this committee argued that the presence of a party leader should determine funding levels, at another MLA committee last week Tory MLAs argued that the Assembly had no business regulating donations to party leadership elections that would select these leaders.
Beyond the partisan rhetoric, there appears to be little basis to determining funds for offices internal to the Assembly based on the leadership of an external party. Albertans do not directly elect party leaders in General Elections, so why should their public funds be tied to the presence of party leaders in the Assembly? If past examples are taken into account, I do not believe that any special “leaders funding” was denied between the time that Nancy MacBeth was selected as Liberal leader and her victory in the 1998 Edmonton-McClung by-election. Of course, precedents and logical arguments are not always surefire ways to win arguments at Legislature committees.
Another argument in favour of denying the funding is because two of the three Wildrose MLAs (Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth) were elected under a different banner in the 2008 election. Supporters of this argument claim that funding should be denied until they run in a by-election to prove that their constituents support the floor-crossing.
There are still a lot of Tory loyalists who feel their blood boiling when they think of the rookie MLA and Klein-era cabinet minister turning their backs on the governing party. Of course, this same argument was not applied to a handful of Liberal MLAs crossed the floor to the Klein Tories in the 1990s, including current Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky.
Under the same logic, why should an MLA who leaves a party to sit as an Independent MLA not be held to the same standard? Should funding be denied to former Liberal MLA Dave Taylor until a by-election is held to confirm his status as an Independent MLA? Would there be an exemption for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutilier, who was ejected from the PC caucus in protest?
This political problem for the PCs began in 1997, when MLAs voted to grant the two MLA NDP caucus official party status even though they did not meet the the official four MLA status. The decision at the time was just as political, though it was aimed to weaken a then-stronger and larger Liberal opposition. The NDP also continue to pose a very minor electoral threat to the PCs. The Tories are having a difficult time applying the same standards to the three MLA Wildrose opposition. The reason why the Wildroses were denied increased funding was because they are seen as a political threat.
PC MLAs can try their hardest to bleed the Wildroses dry inside the Assembly, but it will not stop their larger political problem – the growing crowds of Albertans that Ms. Smith is continuing to attract as she travels across the province.
The 2010 Spring session of the Alberta Legislature wrapped up yesterday with little fanfare. Ending a month and a half earlier than the increasingly pointless Legislative calendar had scheduled, Premier Ed Stelmach‘s PCs seemed happy to cut short one of their roughest sessions in decades. Here are some thoughts on how each of the parties fared during the 2010 Spring session:
Entering their 39th year in office, the Progressive Conservatives caucus appeared to list from left to right and back again during this session. The massive cuts expected in the 2010 budget never emerged (and the cuts that did take place were largely overshadowed by funding to health care and education). Their flagship bill, the Competitiveness Act, is already becoming largely forgotten in the minds of most political watchers and did not have the public splash impact that was likely intended.
Their political machinery is still well-financed, but the PC Party leadership appears disconnected from mainstream Albertans. Premier Stelmach’s weak public speaking skills were crutched by some of the cabinet ministers who were shuffled into new positions in February and have made an impact this Spring. Most notably, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, Finance Minister Ted Morton, Housing Minister Jonathan Denis, and Solicitor General Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau have performed fairly well in their new roles. In the Health Care file, Minister Zwozdesky appears to have spent much of the past three months travelling the province attempting to extinguish the fires set by his predecessor (now -Energy Minister Ron Liepert). While his style has brought a much friendlier tone to his position, there are still remains unanswered questions around issues ranging from seniors’ pharmacare to the future of Alberta Hospital Edmonton.
As criticisms have increased from outside the Legislature, it appears that a few PC backbenchers are increasingly unwilling to read the puff-ball questions that they regularly line up for. Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA George VanderBurg, Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pearl Calahasen, and Grande Prairie-Wapiti MLA Wayne Drysdale have asked some pretty tough questions and have noticeably got under the skin of some cabinet ministers during Question Period.
Premier Stelmach and his cabinet ministers will undertake a province-wide tour over the summer to talk with Albertans (and try to win back the hearts and minds of PC supporters who have flocked to the Wildrose Alliance). The optimist in me hopes that the tour will actually be effective in reconnecting our elected government officials with Albertans.
The very public departure of Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor and his verbal lashing of Dr. Swann in the media seemed to be the most memorable moment for the Liberals during this session, though internally, they are probably better off without Mr. Taylor. The Liberals won a reprieve from negative attention when a motion by backbench PC MLA Verlyn Olson temporarily removed the independence of Public Accounts Committee chairman Hugh MacDonald. While I believe Dr. Swann’s performance actually improved after Mr. Taylor’s departure, similar to their federal counterparts, the provincial Liberals biggest weakness is their focus on daily tactics, rather than long-term strategy to form government.
With the addition of former PC MLAs Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth, the WRA caucus was boosted to third-party status for the first time. Ms. Forsyth’s Mandatory Reporting of Child Pornography bill was passed on third reading (I cannot remember any time that an opposition MLAs private members bill was passed into legislation). The Wildrose Alliance was faced with the challenge of not becoming the NDP of the right and have been strategic in what issues they chose to focus on (ie: opposing the centralization of regional health authorities into Alberta Health Services).
With three MLAs in the Assembly, seatless leader Danielle Smith has spent the majority of her time during this session criss-crossing the province, speaking to town hall meetings, trade shows, chambers of commerce, and anyone interested in meeting with the newly anointed Dauphine of Alberta politics (a very smart decision in my mind).
Outside the Legislature, the NDP appear to be stalled in the polls and have not been able to capitalize on the destabilization inside the Liberal Party. At their 2009 convention, Nova Scotia NDP organizer Matt Hebbadvised his Alberta cousins to build a bigger tent of supporters and to act like a party of government by taking a pragmatic and constructive approach to politics. “Act like a party of government, don’t talk about it,” was Mr. Hebb’s message. Judging by the daily outrage and ankle bitting during Question Period, it does not appear that the two MLAs have heeded Mr. Hebb’s advice.
Independent MLAs Guy Boutilier and Dave Taylor now share the lonely northwest corner of the Assembly floor. It was suspected that Mr. Boutilier might join the Wildrose Alliance caucus (his 2008 campaign manager has joined the WRA), but he may be too much of a wildcard for a party that is riding high in the polls and posturing to form the next government. More recently, there have been rumors floating that Mr. Taylor would like to acquire the leadership of the newly reorganized Alberta Party and reshape it into his own image (knowing the people involved in the Alberta Party, this might not be a welcoming prospect).
Since the 2008 election, five of 83 MLAs have forced the changing of seating arrangements on the Assembly floor. There has not been this much movement across the Assembly floor between elections since the early 1990s, which saw some significant Liberal by-election victories, a New Democrat cross to the PCs, a PC leave to sit as an Independent, and a handful of right-leaning Liberals cross to the PCs. It is also the first time since 1989 that an opposition party other than the Liberals or NDP have had more than one MLA in the Assembly (the Representative Party elected two former Social Credit MLAs in 1986).
This was the final session for long-time Canadian Press reporter Jim MacDonald, who will be retiring from his role in May. After 27 years working for Canadian Press, Mr. MacDonald has become an institution in the Press Gallery. During my time as a spokesperson for the Council of Alberta University Students from 2006 to 2007, Mr. MacDonald was always the most nerve-racking reporter in a media scrum – always asking the toughest questions and not taking spin for an answer. He will be missed.
On a final note, I feel the need to recognize Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid, who is normally a very good columnist, but during this spring session has written some excellent columns about politics in Alberta.
Today’s news that Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor is leaving the Liberal caucus is big news for political watchers, but it is far from the first time that an MLA has left the Alberta Liberal Caucus. Due to many circumstances, ten MLAs have departed the Liberal Caucus before their term has ended over the past 16 years.
2006: One-term Edmonton-Manning MLA Dan Backs was expelled from the Liberal caucus by party leader Kevin Taft due to “ongoing friction” between the MLA and his colleagues. Mr. Back sat an an Independent MLA. After unsuccessfully seeking the PC nomination in 2008, Mr. Backs ran as an Independent and placed third behind Tory Peter Sandhu and New Democrat Rick Murti.
2004: Leader and Lethbridge-East MLA Ken Nicol and Edmonton-EllerslieMLA Debby Carlsonboth left the Liberal caucus to run as federal Liberal candidates. Dr. Nicol eared 21.5% support against Conservative MP Rick Casson, and Ms. Carlson placed only 5,000 votes behind Edmonton-Strathcona Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer.
2000: Edmonton-Norwood MLA Sue Olsen left the Liberal caucus to run peruse a career in federal politics. Ms. Olsen was unsuccessful in her campaign to unseat Edmonton-Centre East MP Peter Goldring.
1999: One-term Edmonton-Castle Downs MLA Pamela Paul left the Liberal caucus to sit as an Independent MLA after domestic issues made it difficult for her to work with her caucus colleagues. She did not seek re-election in 2001.
1998: Two-term Edmonton-Mill Creek MLA Gene Zwozdesky left the Liberals over a dispute with leader Nancy MacBeth. One month later, he joined the Progressive Conservative caucus and is currently the Minister of Health & Wellness.
1996: Former leader and Redwater MLA Nick Taylor left the Liberal caucus when he was appointed to the Senate of Canada by Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
1995: Edmonton-Norwood MLA Andrew Beniuk was expelled from the Liberal caucus and sat as an Independent before joining the PCs in 1996. Mr. Beniuk was defeated by Liberal Sue Olsen in the 1997 election. Mr. Beniuk attempted political comebacks as the PC candidate in Edmonton-Glengarry in 2001 and Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood in 2008.
1994: Edmonton-Beverly-Belmont MLA Julius Yankowski and Lac La Biche-St. Paul MLA Paul Langevin left the Liberals to sit as Independent MLAs before joining the PC caucus in 1995 and were both re-elected in 1997. Mr. Langevin retired in 2001 and Mr. Yankowski was defeated by New Democrat Ray Martin in 2004.
I used to believe that the toughest job in the Alberta cabinet was held by Health & Wellness Gene Zwozdesky, but lately I am starting to believe that it is actually held by Children and Youth Services Minister Yvonne Fritz. Following this week’s shenanigans and resignation over foster care funding, it is clear that something is not functioning properly in our government.
On Monday morning, NDP leader Rachel Notley held a media conference leaking a public document that outlined changes to foster care funding in the Edmonton region. Ms. Notley claimed that the plan was to cut foster funding, and called on Minister Fritz to rescuing the new funding formula. She did and insisted that she told department officials not to cut support. Paula Simons raised the issue in her Tuesday column: Was Minister Fritz sabotaged? Does the Minister actually have a handle on the decisions being made inside the Minister of Children & Youth Services?
Yesterday, Premier Ed Stelmach undoubtably breathed new life into the foster care issue by accusing the NDP of playing politics with the issue. While he may have been trying to save face, his point is somewhat well taken. Should Ms. Notley have brought the issue directly to Minister Fritz? Ms. Notley claims that if she had brought the issue directly to the Minister, it would have been buried (not an unjust assumption). At what point does this kind of political gamesmanship become irresponsible? Like so many issues raised in the Assembly, what was really accomplished when they devolve into this kind of weekly round-robin?
Alberta’s 2010 provincial budget, set to be released in 2 hours, is already making headlines. While Finance Minister Ted Morton has framed it as a “give up a little” budget, an Edmonton blogger almost caught a sneak peak of the budget documents:
For the second year in a row, Premier Ed Stelmach‘s government will run a budget deficit, this time estimated at $4.7 billion and total spending is estimated to be a record $38.7 billion. The PCs are counting on increased oilsands production to boost them out of the cycle of deficits before the 2012 election (I am sure they hope it will boost their party in the polls as well). Compared to the intense cut throat budget that many Albertans expected, this budget dealt a mixture of increases and decreases across the government. Overall, fourteen departments will be on the bitter end of cuts and eight departments will be seeing increases to their budgets in 2010.
With a 17% increase to its operating budget, Alberta’s health care system is the biggest beneficiary of this budget. Alberta Health Services will also receive a one-time infusion of $759 million for debt repayment (perhaps to the Royal Bank…). Since the 2008 election, health care has been one of the toughest files for the PCs, who have felt public pressure from across the province after the dissolution of the regional health authorities and bottom-line based system reforms. If replacing the blunt and controversial Minister Ron Liepert with the more gentler Minister Gene Zwozdesky was a first major step in the government’s health care public relations shift, this budget increase and debt repayment could be the second most substantial. The challenge will be to turn these budget increases into positive changes on the ground level.
The Municipal Affairs and Infrastructure budgets were also substantially increased, due to what I imagine to be the result of strong lobbying efforts by the AUMA and AAMDC.
Perhaps a statement on the level of political capital that Culture & Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett has left after the Bill 44 controversy, that Ministry will reduce operating expenses by 15%. Among other cuts, Advanced Education & Technology will face a 6% budget decrease to program expenses after being on the better end of budget increases over the past five years. Changes to the student finance section of the Advanced Education budget include decreases to student scholarships by $3 million and grants by $51 million, and increases to student loans by (ie: increased student debt).
When Liberal leader David Swanncriticized the budget and the PCs for not “responsibly managing the public purse,” it may have sounded like a predictable opposition response, but it raises some important points about recent government budgets and the provincial government’s large dependance on natural resource revenues for income. Alberta is a resource-based economy, but the budget turbulence in recent years highlights why Albertans should be concerned about the lack of economic diversification in our province.
Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith (who will be releasing her party’s alternative budget tomorrow) criticized the budget and Finance & Enterprise Minister Ted Morton‘s credentials as a true fiscal conservative, but this budget is just another step in Minister Morton’s public moderation. Since the 2006 PC leadership race, Minister Morton has transformed his public image as the great right-wingfire-wall lighter to a competent and softer governor. This budget includes both cuts and increases, striking a kind of political balance. This was Minister Morton’s first budget and if he is able to survive his tenure in the Finance portfolio, he could be well positioned to be the leading candidate in the next PC leadership race.
Long-time Government spokesperson Jerry BellikkareplacesTom Olsen as spokesman for Premier Ed Stelmach (Olsen now becomes Alberta’s Olympic Spokesperson in Vancouver). Former MLA Jim Gurnett replaces Jerry Toews as Chief of Staff at the NDP caucus. Instead of laughing atsatire, PAB blogger David Sands leaves Twitter altogether. Taking a more open approach to the media than his predecessor, Health & Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky‘s cell phone number is now showing up on Government media releases.
Not your father’s NEP
With new Energy Minister Ron Liepert‘s mandate to reclaim PC dominance over energy sector support from Danielle Smith‘s Wildrose Alliance, the Liberals do not want to be left out. Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor is leading his party’s 180-degree policy change from their previous position that resource royalties are too low. On the policy change, Mount Royal University Professor Bruce Foster told FFWD:
“It seems as if the Liberals didn’t take the lead on this or didn’t distinguish themselves and now they’re playing catch-up,” he says.