Alberta Politics

public health care is not broken, it just needs some tender loving care.

This week’s political intrigue, the suspension of Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman and Stephen Duckett‘s cookie-tantrum, are overshadowing the larger challenges facing our health care system.

The plan proposed by Alberta Health Services top dogs late last week to deal with Emergency Room wait times is a version of a plan already initiated three years ago (known as “full capacity protocol” or “surge capacity” at some facilities).

It works like this: when the number of patients in the Emergency Room hits a magic number, patients are put on stretchers and pushed to wards in the hospital where they are placed in hallways or in rooms (in many cases with patients already admitted). It does not take a health economist or health care professional to understand that pushing patients away from the Emergency Room into hallways is not a solution to this problem. This “out of sight, out of mind” approach may decrease the number of patients physically waiting in the Emergency Room, but it does not do much to actually increase patient care. It also does not deal with the root causes of why Emergency Room wait times have increased in Alberta.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of having visited an Emergency Room will see that there is a serious under-staffing problem. In many hospitals, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals are being run off their feet trying to make up for a lack of proper staffing levels. If new beds are to be introduced, so must an appropriate number of new staffing positions. Patient care will only be improved if there are medical and nursing staff to accompany new beds.

The challenges facing Emergency Rooms go beyond just Emergency Rooms.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a family doctor in Alberta. This challenge and limited access to urgent care centres in many communities leaves Emergency Rooms as the only option for many Albertans. When fully operational, the new East Edmonton Health Centre could provide a good model of the kind of accessible family and urgent care that people are currently turning to the Emergency Rooms for.

The reality is that many of the problems faced by our health care system have been created by constant political restructuring of the administration of the system over the past 15 years.

As I wrote last week, stability is something that has been lacking in our public health care system since Ralph Klein became Premier in 1992. Since 1995, the administration of our system has been changed from around 200 hospital and local health boards before 1995 to seventeen, to nine in 2001, and then one centralized province-wide health authority in 2008.

As the health authorities were being restructured in the 1990s, over 10,000 health care staff were laid off or had their jobs downgraded, which has led to much of the staffing issues Albertans are witnessing today.

Current Minister Gene Zwozdesky has tried to put a kinder face on the Health & Wellness portfolio, but the last major restructuring, the creation of AHS took place under the guidance of Minister Ron Liepert in 2008.

In what some political watchers believed to be an extension of a public battle between Calgary Health Region CEO Jack Davis and the provincial government, Minister Liepert dissolved the nine remaining regional health boards and centralized them under AHS (Mr. Davis received a $4 million retirement package when his position was eliminated). Minister Liepert, who was recently criticized by his former parliamentary assistant Dr. Sherman, was not known for his diplomatic skills while serving as Health Minister:

Created only months after the March 2008 provincial election, there was no mention of intentions to dissolve the regional health authorities anywhere in the PC Party election platform. The largest overhaul of Alberta’s health care system was not made in consultation with Albertans, but in closed-door meetings.

Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative

Couched in nice-sounding words like “European-model”, groups like the Wildrose Alliance argue that the solution is to introduce more private-for-profit involvement in the health care system.

As Albertans saw with the bankruptcy of the Health Resource Centre in Calgary, the flagship for the private health care industry in Canada, introducing more private-for-profit health care is not a viable alternative. I do not believe that this is a solution to improving our health care system. The solution is to fully support and provide stability to a public system that is accessible and accountable to the general public.

While I am disappointed that the Wildrose has taken a negative tone when talking about health care, it has helped remind many Albertans about why they support a public health care system and why it is important to our society.

“Alberta Health Act”

Eclipsed by the past month of health care news is Bill 17: the Alberta Health Act, which is up for third reading this week. This Act is vacuous on details, but as enabling legislation it will allow for more decisions about our health care laws to be made in closed-door cabinet meetings, rather than in the public and open debate on the floor of the Assembly.

As we have learned from the past month and the Alberta Health Services experience, our health care system needs decision makers who are not driven by private agendas behind closed doors, it need openness, transparency, and stability. It needs some TLC.

Alberta Politics

testing conservative unity.

Calgary-Centre North by-election could be a test of conservative unity in alberta.

As the first major political event on the federal stage in Alberta since the Wildrose Alliance jumped from insignificance to contender in the polls over the past year, the Calgary-Centre North by-election could be a symbolic test of the Conservative Party’s strength in tolerating the provincial split in the conservative movement in Alberta. The resignation of Environment Minister Jim Prentice could open the door for a contested race for the Conservative Party nomination that could highlight some of these cleavages. Could that riding’s Conservative nomination contest become a proxy war in the battle between moderate and ideological conservatives that has exploded on the provincial level?

I have had an number of interesting and frank conversations with federal Conservative Party organizers who are acutely aware of their delicate balancing act. In most provinces, many members of the federal Conservative Party are also members of the equivalent “conservative” party in the provincial level (ie: BC Liberals, Saskatchewan Party, PC Party in Ontario and the maritimes). Alberta’s conservatives are in a different situation.

Many active members of the Conservative Party of Canada remain active members of the four decade-long governing Progressive Conservatives, but many have become active with the Wildrose Alliance over the past year (including Wildrose candidates Andrew Constantinidis in Calgary-West and Rod Fox in Lacombe-Ponoka who are former Conservative Party Electoral District Association Presidents). Two of the Wildroses main political staffers are also products of the federal Conservative school of politics. Executive Director Vitor Marciano and Communications Director William McBeath both left positions in the federal Conservative establishment to join the insurgent Wildrosers since Danielle Smith became leader.

It is somewhat reminiscent of the split that happened among conservative voters in the 1990s with the rise of the Reform Party of Canada and the decline of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Although they did not form a functional provincial-wing, the split between the Reformers and the federal PC Party in Alberta also happened during a time of flux on the provincial level. Many Reform Party supporters were drawn to the policies of fiscal conservative provincial Liberal leader Laurence Decore. A few Reformers such as Don MacDonald and Donna Graham ran as Liberal Party candidates. Mr. MacDonald stunned many political watchers when he handily won a 1992 by-election in the Three Hills riding in the conservative heartland. The Liberals also won support in the Little Bow constituency where candidate Ms. Graham came within 262 votes of defeating Tory Barry McFarland. It was a different time.

Following the 1993 re-election of the PC Party led by Premier Ralph Klein, many of these tensions disappeared as many Reformers made amends with Alberta’s natural governing party. Some of these tensions re-emerged under a resurgent Social Credit in 1997, but that year’s election proved to bare no fruit for the antiquated political movement. By 2001, when Reform MP Ian McClelland moved into provincial politics it appeared that all was beautiful, calm, and quiet on the conservative front. What a difference nine years can make.

Back to my original point, it will be very interesting to watch how the Conservative Party of Canada will try to mitigate any migration of the conservative conflict into its ranks in Alberta.

Alberta Politics

premier stelmach vacationed in europe while medicine hat was treading water.

While water flood levels of the South Saskatchewan river rose around Medicine Hat and heavy rain continued to pour,  Premier Ed Stelmach was leaving for a European vacation. In a recent interview on My96fm radio, Premier Stelmach fumbled his way through an explanation of why he and his wife left to vacation in Portugal as the flooding disaster in southeastern Alberta intensified. (Click on the link below to listen to the interview and skip to 1:17 point in the interview).

Listen to the radio interview with Premier Ed Stelmach

I do not begrudge the Premier for taking a vacation, but there are significant symbolic reasons why political leaders show up at disaster areas. Dispatching cabinet ministers to view the damage is not enough. It is a political problem that Premier Stelmach still has not visited the affected areas of southeastern Alberta. As Don Braid wrote, people affected by disasters notice when their elected leader does not even showed up to see it with through his own eyes. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has already made a number of trips to the affected areas on his side of the provincial boundary.

This is not the first time that an occupant of the Premier’s Office has been away on leisure while Albertans were waiting for leadership. Premier Ralph Klein went on a fishing trip while Mad Cow Disease was causing Alberta farms to be put under quarantine in 2003 and former Premier Don Getty was discovered to have been “working out of the office” at a golf course during the height of the Principal Group collapse in 1987.

Premier Stelmach’s absence has been noticed and is producing some harsh criticism from the Albertans in this region who have overwhelmingly voted for the PC Party since the mid-1970s.

Alberta Politics

inspiring education in alberta.

Webcast across Alberta, Education Minister Dave Hancock proudly released the long awaited Inspiring Education report yesterday. The report was the result of an 18 months process of consultations and study by the process’ steering committee. There are some very good recommendations in this report for the future of Alberta’s education system. Hopefully it will not join the litany of other government reports that quietly get shelved or watered down after the shine wears off.

Will School Boards survive?
The Inspiring Education process raised concerns about the role of School Boards in our education system. It is fairly obvious that for a number of reasons, school boards have become increasingly irrelevant in local and provincial politics. It would be easy to lay the blame solely on the provincial government, who have spent years meddling and restructuring the authority of the boards, but responsibility also lays with the elected trustees. Many districts have lost their connection to the larger community and have become dominated by retired school administrators, who continue to do what they have done in their previous careers – administer – rather than provide leadership and vision. In order for school boards to survive, they need to be relevant to the population beyond just parents, teachers, and administrators. The future of Alberta’s education system will effect our entire population and school boards need to reflect this. School boards need to change.

I would not blame anyone for being weary of the provincial government restructuring how school boards govern. The PC government does not exactly have a friendly track record of respecting local authorities and governance. A trend of centralizing power extends from the dissolution of the regional planning commissions in the 1990s, the dissolution of community lottery boards and the cancellation of elected health boards in the early 2000s, and the forced merger and creation of the appointed Alberta Health Services Superboard in 2008.

Only Hancock could do it.
After observing the Inspiring Alberta process from afar, I question whether another Minister in the current cabinet could have actually see through a process such as this.

With politics within Minister Hancock’s party focusing to match the Wildrose Alliance at what seems like every policy point, it must be increasingly difficult to be the lone Red Tory in the Alberta cabinet. Even for a hardworking MLA and the “Political Minister for Edmonton,” a position which I imagine has much to do with seniority in a competitive political environment such as Edmonton, this process must have cost significant political capital from his more conservative colleagues in cabinet, now apparently led by Premier-in-waiting Ted Morton. After Bill 44: Human Rights, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Amendment Act tarnished his reputation among many centre-left Albertans (especially educators) as the leader of the moderate Tories, Minister Hancock could probably use this kind of positive attention.

The entire process of Inspiring Education is very reminiscent of a previous project. As Minister of Advanced Education in 2005, Hancock began a process that was very similar to Inspiring Education. The A Learning Alberta process had a similar tone and spirit. Switch keynote speakers Daniel Pink with Richard Florida and School Administrators with University Administrators (and add Twitter) and you effectively have duplicated the process.

The A Learning Alberta process was derailed before it was completed. In 2006, A Learning Alberta was handed off to Minister Denis Herard, whose deepities of building “wisdom bridges” and marshalling “armies of mentors” pummelled the final recommendations document into virtual irrelevance. The final report was a shell of what had been promised after a thorough year long consultation process.

It was obvious that Minister Hancock needed to spend quite a bit of political capital in the closing days of Premier Ralph Klein‘s reign in order to initiate this process and secure much of the major funding increases that the post-secondary education system saw in the last decade. I would argue that A Learning Alberta failed to present a large vision in large part because Minister Hancock’s predecessor did not have the political will or capital. Now that this new process focusing on the Department of Education has reached a milestone, it will be interesting to see if Minister Hancock is able to see the rest of it through.

Legislative Election Agenda
With the new Alberta Health Act expected to be introduced in Fall 2010 and changes to the School Act expected in early 2011, look for Inspiring Education to play a role in the increasingly obvious election cycle that we appear to have already entered.

Alberta Politics

alberta politics notes 5/29/2010

Naheed Nenshi is in the race for Mayor of Calgary. Mr. Nenshi joins MLA Kent Hehr, Alderman Ric McIver, Alderman Joe Connelly, and former MLA Jon Lord. Read for up to the minute updates on the Calgary Municipal election.
– Ward F candidate for Public School Board Michael Janz is kicking off his campaign with a free BBQ on May 30 (tomorrow) at the McKernan Community Hall.
– Minister Dave Hancock is expected to soon release the “Inspiring Education” report. Edmonton Trustee Sue Huff shared her thoughts on the process conference last October.
– One day he is filing a $2.8 million lawsuit against his former employer, the Edmonton Sun, and the next day columnist Kerry Diotte is seeking election to City Council. Mr. Diotte’s campaign team is said to include Gordon Stamp (Campaign Manager to Edmonton-East MP Peter Goldring) and former Councillor and perennial Mayoral candidate Mike Nickel (who was defeated by Don Iveson in 2007).
– Alberta’s Resource Royalty structure has once again been changed as the Provincial Government gives up $1.5 billion in revenue. The changes made in 2007 were the chief criticisms made by the Wildrose Alliance of the governing Progressive Conservatives. They reacted with luke warm support of the changes.
Todd Hirsh, a senior analyst with ATB Financial, raises the question: could Greece become Alberta’s nightmare?.
– “Maybe we need a good recession or a depression.” Former Premier Ralph Klein said he did not know how small business owners could address the province’s extremely high wage expectations.
– Former Edmonton-Mill Woods Liberal MLA Weslyn Mather wrote a letter about her party in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal.
– Some people are starting to notice the “election-like campaigns” that politicians are engaging in this summer (Energy Minister Ron Liepert described the recent Cabinet Tour as an “election tour“) Is it a sign of an early 2011 election?
– While her party may have shunned cooperation in the next provincial election, NDP Research Director and Public School Board candidate Sarah Hoffman engaged a friendly crowd at a fundraiser for Edmonton-Gold Bar Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald this week.

Read more in the Alberta Politics Notes archive.

Daryl Katz Don Iveson Ed Stelmach Joan Forge Peter Elzinga Ralph Klein

does downtown edmonton need a katz arena district?

The Katz Group launched a new website last week reframing their campaign for a new downtown arena as the centrepiece of a new “Arena District” north of Edmonton’s downtown core. The new website features a video interview with Katz Group President Daryl Katz. In the video, billionaire businessman Mr. Katz spoke emotionally about the potential for downtown Edmonton and the need for a conversation about the future of a revitalized downtown Edmonton. The website provides different types of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, to start this conversation.

I expect that this website is the beginning of a larger political campaign that will unfold before the 2010 Edmonton City Council elections. In October 2009, the Katz Group retained the services of Peter Elzinga, former MP, MLA, and Chief of Staff to Premier Ralph Klein from 1998 to 2004, for activities related to a “downtown Edmonton redevelopment project.” Until December 2009, the Katz Group had also acquired the services of lobbyist Joan Forge, who served as Premier Ed Stelmach‘s communications shop during the 2006 PC leadership race.

While I liked the video, Mr. Katz avoided the most important question of the exercise: money. It is no secret that the Katz Group would like the City of Edmonton to loan upwards of $400 million towards a new downtown arena, likely making it the largest non-transportation-related one-time investment that our municipality will have ever made (Councillor Don Iveson recently explained the funding request issue more articulately than I ever could here and here).

Aside from the political spin, I welcome a wider public conversation and am excited about the potential for a real debate about downtown. There are those people who are stuck in the 1980s and 1990s mentality that downtown Edmonton is a barren wasteland of warehouses and closed down rail yards, and then there are those Edmontonians who have moved on and seen the evolving character of our downtown core. The Katz Group campaign could generate competing ideas and a real discussion about what kind of face Edmontonians want our downtown to wear.

Downtown Edmonton (what I describe as the area between 100 Street and 124 Street) is a drastically different place than it was ten years ago. From the time when I first lived downtown in 2003 to when I moved back in 2009, I am excited by the changes that I have witnessed. New condo developments in the Oliver and Grandin have created a new identity in those neighbourhoods. People are moving into the core of the city and enhancing its diversity. Walk down Jasper Avenue west of 109th Street on a summer night and you will bump into many people coming in from the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. The 104th Street Farmers’ Market is a perfect example of the vibrant new identity of Edmonton’s downtown core.

The business district of downtown Edmonton is like many other commercial business districts: employees leave work and it closes down at 6pm. This is the purpose of a commercial district dominated by office towers. An arena is not going to change this. An arena district north of downtown developed on clear urban development concepts could help revitalize a rougher part of the downtown core.

I have heard many arguments about how a downtown arena could revitalize the area, but I have not been convinced that our current arena, Rexall Place, is as bad as its detractors would characterize it. Admittedly, I have only been inside Rexall Place about a dozen times over the past ten years (mostly during the Canadian Finals Rodeo). While this is the case, I don’t fully understand why it needs to be replaced so badly. As a friend pointed out to me yesterday, ‘because it is old’ isn’t a very good argument.

Although the idea of a downtown “arena district” intrigues me, any new development must be based in solid urban development concepts, and not in emotional appeals from politically and financially motivated individuals.

I welcome a real conservation about downtown Edmonton. Let’s start it!

Bill Smith Curtis Gillespie Jan Reimer Laurence Decore Michael Phair Patricia Misutka Ralph Klein

macewan university – the future of story conference & alberta’s political narrative.

I had a great time participating in the Future of Story Conference organized by MacEwan University‘s School of Communications this weekend (you can read tweets from participants at #futureofstory). I was lucky to be invited to join a panel discussion focusing on “the political narrative” that was led by writer Curtis Gillespie and included panelists Michael Phair (Edmonton City Councillor from 1992 to 2007) and Patricia Misutka (Chief of Staff to Mayor Stephen Mandel). Our discussion topic led to some very interesting conversation about the role (and dangers) of narrative in politics and the differences between narrative, spin, and ideology.

Opening the discussion, I offered my thoughts on how the political narrative and mythology of Alberta has been translated into how Canadians from other provinces see us (a topic that I have recent written about). A sincere glance at our province will make it easy for anyone with common-sense to debunk the myth that Alberta is a cultural, societal, and political monolith.

Michael Phair spoke about the political narrative that dominated the run up to the 1995 municipal election. At the time, it was largely believed that Edmonton was falling behind and needed to elect a new and “business-friendly” Mayor. Two mayoral candidates, including Bill Smith, adopted this narrative as central to their campaigns and in October 1995, he was successful in unseating two-term Mayor Jan Reimer. Upon entering office, Mayor Smith discovered the limitations that municipal governments have to creating immediate economic growth and attracting businesses. This political narrative pigeon-holed Smith, who over his three-terms in office was typecast as solely being the “business Mayor” or “cheerleader” for Edmonton. Mr. Phair pointed out that this narrative overshadowed many of Mayor Smith’s accomplishments – including the leading role he played in ending smoking in bars and restaurants in Edmonton. Interestingly, current Mayor Mandel, who arguably has just as much business background as his predecessor, has successfully avoided being overshadowed by this political narrative.

Patricia Misutka gave a really good example of how the vacuum of leadership from the provincial and federal orders of government has allowed municipalities across the world to become leaders in environmental and sustainability initiatives. Having attended the ICLEI World Congress in Edmonton last summer, I completely agree.

The panel also generated some interesting discussion on the challenges of differentiating political narrative and political ideology. When describing the various political narratives that Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party has been successful in creating since they were first elected in 1971, a number of audience members pointed out that the root of the political narrative that defined Premier Ralph Klein‘s government was rooted in the ideology of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I argued that Premier Klein’s decision to embrace a harder-line fiscal conservative agenda was less based on sincere ideology than it was in ideology of convenience. It was pointed out by one of my fellow panelists that the first politician to begin crafting that narrative in Alberta was Liberal leader Laurence Decore. As is fairly well-known in Alberta political circles, Premier Klein understood that Albertans were embracing that narrative and he embraced the idea and branded it as his own. Under this narrative, his party was re-elected in 1993, 1997, and 2001. Arguably, after the deficit and debt has been paid off, Premier Klein’s government drifted through the 2004 “Kleinfeld” election until his retirement in 2006.

One of the biggest challenges facing the government of Premier Ed Stelmach is its lack of defining purpose, or political narrative that Albertans will embrace. In the absence of any dominant narrative, there are a number of citizen groups and political parties competing to craft their own political narratives (or spin) around the upcoming provincial budget, including the Taxpayers federation, Join Together Alberta, the Parkland Institute and the Wildrose Alliance. This weekend, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy hosted a Conference on Alberta’s Future, where among many things, crafting various shades of blue political narratives for our province were discussed (you can read more about it here, here, here, here, and here). In a couple of weeks, citizens involved in Reboot Alberta will gather in Kananaskis to discuss other new ideas in crafting a new political narrative for our province. We are only two months in and 2010 already looks like it is going to be an interesting years for politics in Alberta.

Overall, The Future of Story conference generated some excellent discussion about the future of the craft of storytelling and brought together over 250 interested and passionate storytellers to share their ideas.

Danielle Smith Dave Taylor David Sands Ed Stelmach Edwin Erickson Gene Zwozdesky Jerry Toews Jim Gurnett Joe Anglin Ralph Klein Ron Liepert Tom Olsen

upside-down week.

Shuffling the deck.

Long-time Government spokesperson Jerry Bellikka replaces Tom 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 at satire, PAB blogger David Sands leaves Twitter altogether. Taking a more open approach to the media than his predecessor, Health & Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdeskys 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.

Calgary Grit has more.

Alberta Party of Alberta

Former deputy leader of the now-defunct Alberta Green Party Edwin Erickson is now leader of the Alberta Party. In the last election, Erickson placed second with 19% of the vote against Tory Diana McQueen in Drayton Valley-Calmar. Erickson and Joe Anglin led the fight against Bill 50 and Erickson had publicly mused about creating the Progress Party of Alberta. The Alberta Party has existed in a number of forms since 1986, but has never been competitive (highest support: leader Mark Waters earned 1,200 votes in Calgary-Currie in 1993).

Ralph University

Olds College has re-named their Community Learning Centre after former Premier Ralph Klein and not everyone in Olds is enamoured with the decision.