Tag Archives: Stephen Duckett

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background.

Former Speaker Gene Zwozdesky has died at age 70. The “Wizard of Zwoz” started as a Liberal and became the PC Party’s charm machine.

Gene Zwozdesky, the former Speaker of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, has died of cancer at the age of 70.

Known for being incredibly approachable and having the ability to lay-on the political charm in a grand way, Zwozdesky became known in the latter part of his time in elected office as the “Wizard of Zwoz” for his seeming ability to reverse unpopular decisions made by his cabinet predecessors. But while Zwozdesky is known to many Alberta political watchers from his time in the Progressive Conservative cabinet and later as Speaker of the Assembly, he started his political career in the opposition benches as a Liberal.

Gene Zwozdesky Alberta MLA

Gene Zwozdesky’s official MLA portrait photo in 1997.

A teacher and champion of Alberta’s Ukrainian musical and cultural heritage, Zwozdesky was first elected to the Legislature in 1993 as Liberal in Edmonton-Avonmore.

Zwozdesky defeated five other candidates to win the Liberal Party nomination that year, taking the nomination on the fifth ballot with 660 votes out of 757 votes castLed by former mayor Laurence Decore, Zwozdesky easily unseated two-term New Democratic Party MLA Marie Laing as the Liberals swept the capital city.

He was easily re-elected in the renamed Edmonton-Mill Creek district in 1997, holding his vote share in an election that saw Liberal vote decline from its high-water mark in the previous election.

Respected by his opposition colleagues for his work as treasury critic, community development critic, caucus whip, and co-chair of the party’s outreach committee, Zwozdesky was seen as a contender for the party leadership to succeed Decore in 1994 and Grant Mitchell in 1998, but chose to decline the leadership on both occasions.

In 1997, Zwozdesky was briefly a candidate in the Speaker election following Stan Schumacher‘s retirement but was convinced by his caucus colleagues to withdraw from the contest. It is believed that the 18 Liberal MLA votes in that Speaker election helped secure Barrhead-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski’s win over Premier Ralph Klein’s preferred choice, Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg.

In 1998, he left the Liberal caucus and crossed the floor to the PC caucus less than one month later. The official reason for his departure was said to be a disagreement with new party leader Nancy MacBeth over fiscal policy, but it was widely suspected that Klein had been personally trying to recruit Zwozdesky. He was appointed to cabinet as Associate Minister of Health and Wellness in 1999, a shrewd political move to create a foil to counter opposition criticism of the PC government’s Bill 11: Health Care Protection Act, a bill that opponents argued would have increased the privatization of Alberta’s public health care system.

Gene Zwozdesky (second from the left) with PC candidates Carl Benito, TJ Keil and Naresh Bhardwaj, and Premier Ed Stelmach at a Feb. 2008 campaign event at Jackie Parker Park.

Gene Zwozdesky (second from the left) with PC candidates Carl Benito, TJ Keil and Naresh Bhardwaj, and Premier Ed Stelmach at a Feb. 2008 campaign event at Jackie Parker Park.

Zwozdesky was re-elected as a PC candidate in Edmonton-Mill Creek in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012. He served as Minister of Community Development from 2001 to 2004, Minister of Education from 2004 to 2006, Associate Minister of Infrastructure from 2007 to 2008, Minister of Aboriginal Relations from 2008 to 2010, and Minister of Health & Wellness from 2010 to 2011. In his roles as Minister of Education and Minster of Health, he was generally seen as a calming force appointed for the purpose of providing stability in the wake of a disruptive predecessor.

As Health & Wellness Minister, Zwozdesky was given the nickname “the Wizard of Zwoz” by the media after he entered the role with a full-court charm offensive. 

Only three weeks into the job he’s the Wizard of Zwoz, a minister who can reverse unpopular health-care policy with a wave of his BlackBerry,” wrote the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid in February 2010.

In this role, Zwozdesky was responsible for mending the fences smashed by his combative predecessor, Ron Liepert. While he was only in the role for a short period and largely continued to support the PC government’s ideological creep towards privatization in health care, he did oversee important labour negotiations and the swift departure of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett following the “cookie” controversy.

He was dropped from cabinet when Alison Redford became premier in 2011 and following Kowalski’s retirement in 2012, Zwozdesky was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. His only challenger in that contest was Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who was a rookie in the Liberal caucus when Zwozdesky mounted his first campaign for the Speakership in 1997.

While generally seen as a fair Speaker of the Assembly, Zwozdesky had some partisan blindspots, most notably when he ruled that Redford did not mislead the Assembly over the tobacco-gate scandal. He was highly criticized for that decision. 

He served as Speaker until his defeat in the 2015 general election to New Democrat Denise Woollard.

Although it had become clear by the final week of the last election that a giant NDP wave was going to splash through Edmonton, it was difficult to believe that Zwozdesky would lose re-election. But when the votes were counted in Edmonton-Mill Creek, the six-term MLA fell 5,174 votes behind Woollard, ending his 22 year career in Alberta politics.

Following the 2015 election, Zwozdesky helped the new class of NDP and Wildrose Party MLAs transition into the Assembly and then gracefully stepped away from the political spotlight following the election of Medicine Hat MLA Bob Wanner as Speaker. And while a political comeback was unlikely for Zwozdesky after 2015, he continued to stay connected to his political past, being elected as President of the Alberta Association of Former MLAs in 2018.

Photo: Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background. (Photo source: Dave Cournoyer)

Queue-jumping report quashes another Tory scandal

Over the past eight months, Premier Alison Redford‘s Tories have been quickly dispatching the handful of scandals and allegations that dogged them and robbed them of their political agenda throughout 2012. Facing an aggressive Wildrose official opposition, the Progressive Conservatives were marred by controversy as they struggled to put forward a coherent government agenda in the months following last year’s election.

Premier Alison Redford

Premier Alison Redford

With the delivery of Justice John Vertes final report from the semi-independent Health Services Preferential Access Inquiry, the long-governing Tories have dispatched another potentially embarrassing scandal that has dogged them since their party’s 2011 leadership race.

The final report into allegations of politically-influenced queue-jumping  released today found no smoking gun or Watergate-type connections between senior politicians and preferential access in Alberta’s health care system.

While the scope of Justice Vertes’ inquiry was narrower than Premier Redford originally  promised, with no investigations into the alleged intimidation of medical professionals, there are no signs of any massive cover-up.

There are questions about the quality of the responses from those questioned during the inquiry hearings. As the report said, “many witnesses, even though called to testify under oath, exhibited a regrettable failure to recollect events and activities that should not have slipped so easily from memory.”

Raj Sherman MLA

Raj Sherman

While the inquiry did discover some startling cases of queue-jumping, including at the private Helios cancer screening clinic in Calgary, the report rebukes the two prominent individuals who claimed there was political interference.

The first allegation was made by former Alberta Health Services President and CEO Stephen Duckett in a speech and he admitted his sources were second-hand. Dr. Duckett has since returned to Australia, where he is the health program director at the Grattan Institute.

Maybe the politician to lose the most from this report is Liberal Party leader Dr. Raj Sherman, who has spent years claiming to have first-hand evidence of queue-jumping. Dr. Sherman, an emergency room doctor and former parliamentary assistant to the Health Minister, spoke with credibility two years ago and earned a folk-hero status when he was turfed from the Tory caucus in 2010. The Doctor has been unable to produce any evidence supporting his claims, which will certainly hurt his credibility.

Danielle Smith Wildrose Alberta

Danielle Smith

Dr. Sherman’s absence at today’s inquiry report announcement was noticed, as New Democrat MLA David Eggen and Wildrose official opposition leader Danielle Smith made themselves readily available for interviews outside the official media briefing. None of the province’s five Liberal MLAs were present at the event.

Looking  and sounding more like a Premier-in-waiting each day, Ms. Smith responded to the final report with calm and ease.  Not overly critical, the opposition leader questioned the limited scope of the inquiry compared to its originally promised mandate and complimented its recommendations.

The report makes numerous recommendations, including the creation of a Health Advocate and the strengthening of whistleblower protection legislation for health care workers. Both of which have the potential to be positive changes for the health care system.

The Tories may take the recommendation to create a Health Advocate as an opportunity to push the long-shelved and controversial Alberta Health Act into law. Approved by the Assembly in October 2010 , the legislation has collected dust without Royal Assent since.

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.

new alberta health services chairperson’s tory and wildrose connections.

we gonna roll this truckin convoy

We gonna roll this truckin convoy…

The President and Co-CEO of a billion dollar oil and gas transportation and trucking company headquartered in Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith‘s Highwood constituency has been appointed as the new chairperson of Alberta Health Services.

The previous board chair, Ken Hughes is now Energy Minister and the Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-West, so one would easily suspect that Stephen Lockwood‘s connections to the Tory Party are at the root of his appointment as AHS chairperson.

Stephen Lockwood Alberta Health Services

Stephen Lockwood

While Mr. Lockwood admits having made financial contributions to Mr. Hughes recent election campaign, the chairperson and founder of the company be runs – the Mullen Group – have been vicious critics of the PC Party and large financial supporters of the opposition Wildrose Party.

In 2007, Mullen Group founder Roland Mullen and his son, Murray Mullen, were two of the loudest opponents of Premier Ed Stelmach‘s decision to revisit Alberta’s natural resource royalty regime. Their opposition to the royalty review extended so far that the billion dollar company laid off 100 staff during the heat of the debate. Perhaps not surprisingly, in 2008, the father and son donated a combined $25,000 to the Wildrose Party. In 2009, they donated $5000 each to Ms. Smith’s leadership campaign and continued to donate to the Wildrose Party over the next few years.

AHS has been a lightning rod for criticism by opposition parties since it was created by the PCs following the 2008 election. Recent criticism over the decision to close the Little Bow Continuing Care Centrein the southern Alberta village of Carmangay has raised questions about the Tory government cutting funding for facilities and programs in rural constituencies that elected Wildrose MLA’s in the April 2012 election. As if the firing of former President and CEO Stephen Duckett in 2010 was not enough of a public embarrassment, the firing of AHS Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali and resignation of board member Sheila Weatherill earlier this summer has done nothing to help the already damaged public image of the province-wide health authority.

Mr. Lockwood’s stated goal in yesterday’s Government of Alberta media release was to achieve something called “Total Albertan Satisfaction“, but in reality his goal will be to provide stability and improve public perception of AHS in the eyes of Albertans.

But perhaps most interestingly, by appointing a chairperson from Calgary who runs one of the largest employers in the town of Okotoks and whose founders are financial supporters of the Wildrose Party, the Tories may have put Ms. Smith and her party in a precarious situation of having to temper their non-stop attacks against the AHS superboard. Or maybe not.

liberals: tories blowing too much smoke while driving a leaky gravy train through the dark that will derail because of smoke and mirrors.

Raj Sherman Metaphors

The playbook.

The world of opposition politics in Alberta can be an unforgiving place where, in many cases, well-meaning politicians linger until they either give up and leave politics all together or join the long-governing Tories.

In the past, the opposition NDP has typically held the title as masters of media release metaphors (including some odd and obscure metaphors), but a recent media release from the Alberta Liberal Caucus may claim the 2012 summer title. The metaphors packed into this Liberal Caucus media release are almost too much to bear:

Raj Sherman Liberal Party leader Election 2012

Raj Sherman, the metaphorical leader of the Alberta Liberal Party.

Too much smoke blowing from PC gravy train

Edmonton – Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman says the province is doing little more than using smoke and mirrors to clean up the spill from the latest gravy train derailment.

The PC government feigned surprise and concern over the hiring and practices of Merali, brought to light by freedom of information requests, belies the fact he was hand-picked by cabinet in March to be the province’s financial controller.

“Once again, the PCs are blowing smoke at Albertans,” says Sherman. “This is the same premier, minister, and cabinet who, just a few short months ago, offered Merali control over all of the public purse.”

In an effort to mitigate growing public outrage, AHS announced yesterday that Merali will not receive an additional severance package and an outside firm would be hired to conduct an audit of his expenses.

Sherman says the PCs are in damage control mode by cutting out the Auditor General, limiting the review only to Merali’s expenses, and reporting the findings to the minister.

“This just proves the PCs want to control any additional blowback,” says Sherman.

The government has had problems controlling the Auditor General in the past, instead electing to handle similar scandals internally:

– October 2009 Report (p.256) from Alberta’s Auditor General found lack of oversight, poor process, and overpayment for executive termination.

– April 15, 2010 – AHS defends payments to previous Regions’ CEOs and executives as “legacy” agreements—contractual obligations that AHS inherited to which it was bound to comply—and highlights new process for executive contracts.

– November 24, 2010 – In the now infamous “cookie incident”, AHS agreed to a settlement totaling $735,630—including severance, variable pay, and contingent liabilities to Dr. Stephen Duckett.

– August 6, 2012 – AHS board announces no severance for Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali and a forensic audit of his expenses. The Auditor General has been asked to review AHS current policies and practices.

“The PCs are content to let the gravy train chug along silently in the dark” says Sherman, “but when a leak comes to light, it’s quickly cleaned and running back on schedule.”

Sherman believes the government is too compromised by its past involvement to handle the issue with any legitimacy. He is calling for a complete Auditor General’s review of AHS and the former Capital Health Region’s finances, with a report directly to the Legislature.

– 30 –

allaudin merali’s extravagant expenses and severance package a blow to alberta health services, redford government.

The highest echelons of Alberta Health Services are once again being rocked by a firestorm of public criticism after it was revealed that AHS Chief Financial Officer Allaudin Merali had claimed more than $345,000 in expenses to the former Capital Health regional authority.

Allaudin Merali Alberta Health Services

Allaudin Merali

Mr. Merali was fired by AHS hours before the Canadian Boardcasting Corporation aired the story about how he claimed thousands of dollars on lavish meals at restaurants, bottles of wine, catering, and an expensive phone for his Mercedes Benz car. Shifting quickly into damage control mode, AHS soon after released Mr. Merali’s expense claims on their website.

Making the controversy even more outrageous, Mr. Merali is expected to receive a severance package from AHS after his employment was terminated with cause (even AHS CEO Chris Eagle does not have this provision included in his contract).

The story was uncovered by intrepid CBC reporter Charles Rusnell, who has become one of Alberta’s star investigative journalists after uncovering cases of pork-barrel politics and scores of illegal donations made by public institutions to the Progressive Conservative Party.

The controversy claimed a second high-ranking AHS official yesterday as former Capital Health CEO Shiela Weatherill resigned from the AHS board of directors. Seen as a voice of credibility after her successful time as the CEO of Capital Health until it was merged into AHS in 2008, Ms. Weatherill was appointed to the AHS board after the departure of controversial former AHS President and CEO Stephen Duckett in late 2010. Ms. Weatherill was Mr. Merali’s boss when he served as CFO of Capital Health, when many of the expense claims were made.

Fred Horne Alberta Health Minister

Fred Horne

Questions are also being raised about the role of Alberta’s current Ethics Commissioner, Neil Wilkinson, who served as chair of the Capital Health board of directors during Mr. Merali’s time as CFO of the former regional health authority.

The controversy is a blow for Premier Alison Redford‘s PC government, which was swept into office earlier this year after promising to breath new life into the four decade old government. To his credit, Health Minister Fred Horne responded quickly to the controversy and promised that future expenses for public officials at that level will be made public on a quarterly basis. With the damage already done, the largest measure of response the government has is to ensure this does not happen again.

As others have already pointed out, public funds used to fill these types of extravagant expense claims only take money away from where it belongs – on the front-lines of our public health care system.

cindy ady not seeking re-election, hector goudreau demoted, and raj sherman tweets about university intimidation.

Alberta's politicians are preparing for the next election.

Alberta's politicians are preparing for the next election.

Less than 48 hours after the Progressive Conservatives filled their slate of 87 candidates, three-term Calgary-Shaw MLA Cindy Ady announced on her website that she will not be seeking re-election. Ms. Ady served as Tourism minister from 2008 until 2011. Here is the message she posted:

For the past decade, I have had the honour and privilege to serve as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and to make a difference in the lives of Albertans. I have decided it is time to transition and explore new opportunities. As such, I will not be running in the upcoming provincial election.

I wish to thank the constituents of Calgary-Shaw for their inspiration and energy. Their hopes, vision, and determination have led to remarkable growth in our community. In just 10 short years, we have built schools, new healthcare facilities and better transportation systems that will shape the lives of Calgarians for years to come.

I am well aware that there is more work to be done. The hospital project and the Ring Road are two good examples. Rest assured that I will work closely with the future MLA of Calgary-Shaw to ensure a smooth and effective transition.

I would like to express my appreciation for the excellent leadership and counsel I have received from Premier Redford and my colleagues during my time as MLA. The support provided to me and my family, and the opportunities to serve the people of this province have been life changing.

Hector Goudreau demoted, not running for re-election?

Dunvegan-Central Peace PC MLA Hector Goudreau has resigned as chairman of the Cabinet Policy Committee for Community Development after defending himself from allegations he bullied school board officials in his constituency. CTV News is reporting that Mr. Goudreau has also decided against seeking re-election, though other news outlets have not reported this.

Mental health funding increased

In a pre-election announcement yesterday morning, Health & Wellness Minister Fred Horne told the media that the government has allocated an additional $15 million towards much needed renovations and expansion of services at Alberta Hospital Edmonton. The hospital’s future looked bleak only a few years ago when then-CEO of Alberta Health Services Stephen Duckett canceled previous plans for upgrades, claiming that the site buildings were too old and decrepit.

Sherman accuses government of intimidating U of A

Meanwhile, Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman is accusing the provincial government of intimating the University of Alberta‘s interim Dean of Medicine & Dentistry Verna Yiu. Dr. Sherman tweeted that he could not understand why the interim Dean cancelled his grand rounds and suggested that the decision was caused by “the intimidating arm of the #pcaa.”

Raj Sherman tweets 2012/03/05

Raj Sherman tweets 2012/03/05

alison redford distancing herself from premier stelmach.

“She’s taking the same position as Raj Sherman, who’s now -I don’t know what he is now, an Independent? -and I believe David Eggen who is also an NDP candidate (and) is asking for the same.”

“You’d have to ask why she took the position. Obviously, some of the leadership candidates are going to try to differentiate themselves and this is one way of doing it.” – Premier Ed Stelmach (June 7, 2011)

Premier Ed Stelmach took a remarkably partisan pot shot at one of his own party’s leadership candidates, Alison Redford, after she called for a judicial inquiry into accusations of politically influenced queue-jumping made by former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett.

This is the second time in two weeks that Ms. Redford has taken a public position opposite to the Premier. Last week she publicly rebutted the Premier’s confused statement that teachers were to blame for lay-offs.

It is not difficult to see why Ms. Redford would be trying to distance herself from Premier Stelmach. According to a Angus Reid Vision Critical poll released yesterday, only 27% of Albertans surveyed approved of Premier Stelmach’s job performance (54% of Albertans surveyed disapproved of his job performance).

queue jumping for political insiders could unleash the wrath and fury of albertans.

The beginning of a slow news week, the rantings of an angry fall-guy, or the first tremor of an earthquake that could shake the foundation of a 40-year political dynasty?

Queue Jumpers

Warning.

As reported by CBC, former Alberta Health Services CEO and President Stephen Duckett told the audience at a May 5 conference in Toronto that some of his predecessor CEOs under the old Regional Health Authorities “had designated ‘go-to guys’ for discrete waiting list adjustments on request from MLAs.

If true, this is a bombshell that would unleash upon each Tory MLA the wrath and fury of every Albertan who has ever had to watch a loved one suffer in pain while waiting in queue for a medical procedure. Accusations like this would cause parties in most jurisdictions to easily lose elections, in Alberta it could awaken an electorate that has supported the PC Party for nearly 40 years.

Dr. Duckett served as President and CEO of AHS from March 2009 until November 2010, he became a liability for his political masters after a turbulent fall session of the Assembly. He was unceremoniously dumped after spending 2 minutes refusing to answer media questions while eating a cookie.

With his recent employment history still fresh in our minds, no one should doubt that Dr. Duckett has an axe to grind with his former political masters, but taking into account that grain of salt, we should not immediately discount his words.

Are these allegations true? An Alberta Health spokesperson’s response to CBC was telling: “[Dr. Duckett made] vague allegations about what may or may not have occurred in the past.” Dr. Duckett did not provide the names of the CEOs, MLAs, or “go-to-guys” involved in arranging the alleged queue jumping, but as the week continues I imagine that the tiny spotlight shone by CBC today will grow wider into a spotlight of political commentary and intrigue.

UDPATE: The Edmonton Journal’s Karen Kleiss posted this June 11, 2009 memo from Dr. Duckett to the executives of the then newly created Alberta Health Services in regards to requests for expedited care.
Duckett Memo on Expedited Care

legislative agenda a side-show. leadership contests the only show in town.

Amid all the regal pomp and ceremony we could spare ahead of Wills & Kate’s expected visit this Summer, Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell delivered his first Speech from the Throne today.

PC leadership candidate Alison Redford

An annual event, politicos patiently lined up to listen to the Queen’s representative sit on a throne and read a speech (and then afterward network at a giant cocktail party under the Rotunda’s giant marble dome).

Typically, these speeches are used to present vague feel-good messages about the government’s legislative agenda during that session of the Assembly. With Premier Ed Stelmach having announced that he will resign in September 2011, there is little doubt that most of the real political action overt the next eight months will take place outside the Assembly. As the experience in the provincial cabinet was parred down with the departure of leadership candidates Ted Morton, Doug Horner, and Alison Redford, this government’s Legislative Agenda is appears to be as decisive as a lame-duck. Its only saving grace may be the Provincial Budget, to be presented by Finance Minister Lloyd Snelgrove on Thursday, February 24.

PC leadership candidate Ted Morton.

The government legislation prepared for the Spring Session (announced via media release last week) presents a mostly light agenda, including house-keeping amendments in the Livestock Industry Diversification Amendment Act, Alberta Investment Management Corporation Amendment Act, Securities Amendment Act, Rules of Court Statutes Amendment Act, Corrections Amendment Act, and the Victims of Crime Amendment Act.

Justice Minister Verlyn Olson

Bill 1: The Asia Advisory Council Act,, tabled immediately following today’s Throne Speech, proposes to create what its title suggests, a council to advise on Asian trade. A watered down Education Act is expected to be tabled during the spring sitting and debate on the Bill is not expected to be concluded until the Fall sitting, when a new PC leader/Premier will decide its fate.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky

The most interesting piece of legislation presented by the government in this session may be the Alberta Land Stewardship Amendment Act, which the government hopes will quell dissent by rural landowners concerned that government is encroaching on their property rights. The property rights issue, spurned by the development of transmission line corridors and the passage of Bills 19, 23, 30, and 50, has drawn thousands of rural Albertans to town hall meetings over the past four years. The Liberals and NDP have tried to hone in on the issue, but the Wildrose Alliance appears to have shown some short-term success in making it one of their key political wedge issues.

PC leadership candidate Doug Griffiths (right) and his wife Sue (left) with a supporter.

Health care was the issue that defined the 2010 fall sitting of the Assembly which ended last November. Emergency debates, the ejection from the PC caucus of outspoken Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Dr. Raj Sherman, the allegations of a smear campaign started by Edmonton-Rutherford MLA Fred Horne, and the forced resignation of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett made for some of the most exciting political Albertans had seen until Premier Ed Stelmach’s resignation announcement in February 2011.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky will do his best to keep the health care file under control during this political season. He has started off fairly well with the announcement that the provincial budget, to be tabled on February 24, will include the promised 6% increase in health care funding. He has also deflected some criticism of the AHS Board of Directors by appointing five new members, including former Capital Health CEO Sheila Weatherill, who all seem like appropriate choices. His biggest challenge will to actually prove that patient care can be improved under his guidance.

On the surface, the governing PCs will be talking about a Legislative agenda, but in reality their attention will be focused on choosing a new leader. It may be the hottest leadership contest in the province, but they are not the only party having to face the reality of a fairly fluid political environment.

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman.

The Liberal Party and Alberta Party are also in the midst of their own leadership contests. Independent Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman has non-chalantly mused that he may seek the leadership of a political party, but that he is not yet sure which one (Watch the video of Dr. Sherman’s interview with CHAT TV) and Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman defused rumours that she was crossing the floor to the Alberta Party by announcing that she will seek the leadership of the Liberal Party.

With leadership contests in full-swing until Fall 2011 in three of the province’s five main political parties, Albertans may have to wait until 2012 to see another solid Legislative hit the floor of their Assembly.

See more photos from today’s Speech from the Throne.

2010 in review: alberta politics.

This past year has been a fascinating one in Alberta politics. We have felt the rise of a new political opposition, witnessed more floor crossings than in decades, and a long-serving government that is trying desperately to find a direction. What have the changes in the past year meant for Alberta’s political players and what will it mean for them in 2011?
Progressive Conservatives
The challenges facing the PC Party on the eve of 2011 are similar to the challenges they faced a year ago. During the mid and late 1990s, the PCs were driven by an all-consuming desire to defeat the provincial deficit and debt. Once those goals were accomplished in the mid-2000s, the PCs lost their driving force. As in 2009, they continued to drift through 2010, without a defining purpose.

To say that the government was on auto-pilot in 2010 might be too generous a description because even that assumes that the ship is purposefully being steered in one direction. This is not to say that the PCs have driven Alberta into the ground. Alberta is still one of the most economically vibrant regions in Canada, but even the biggest optimist would admit that with a lack of strong leadership an institutional mediocrity has begun to define the leadership of Premier Ed Stelmach.

Protecting the reputation of the oil sands has become a raison d’aitre for many cabinet ministers, including Premier Stelmach and Environment Minister Rob Renner, but issues like health care have overshadowed these environmental issues on a domestic level. The firing of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett along with a public shaming by the ER Doctors, and a very public battle with Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Dr. Raj Sherman over Emergency Room wait-times turned the Tories to damage control mode late in 2010.

The PCs had initially hoped to turn health care as one of their positive stories of 2010 and promised one of the most important pieces of health care legislation in decades. The flagship Alberta Health Act was initially created to bring all health care laws under one piece of legislation, but once it made it to the Assembly floor, it was watered down to include a non-binding health charter and empowering the Health Minister to make more decisions in closed door cabinet meetings, rather than through Legislative votes.

In a number of year end interviews, Premier Stelmach has already begun managing expectations for 2011, stating that the provincial budget deficit may not be paid down until 2013, which creates an interesting political environment for an election expected in March 2012. The Premier has also stated that he will shuffle his cabinet in early 2011 in advance of the next election.

The next year will give the PCs an opportunity to mend some fences in their former stronghold of Calgary. The election of Mayor Naheed Nenshi in October 2010 could create a new cooperative tone between the Premier and the Mayor of Alberta’s largest city (a relationship that was not kind to the Premier when Dave Bronconnier was Mayor). If the PCs are unable to regain lost ground in Calgary, they might begin asking what, or who, caused their decline in support, and whether the reason responsible should be replaced.

Liberals
After being elbowed to the sideline by the growing narrative of the Wildrose Alliance as the next government-in-waiting in 2010, the Liberal Party’s biggest challenge in 2011 is to be relevant. Unable to defeat the PCs after 17 years as the Official Opposition, the Liberal Party has started to look and feel like yesterday’s opposition party.

The party has paid down its enormous debt and the caucus has released a series of new policies, but under David Swann‘s leadership the party has been unable to show any momentum as it slipped to third place in nearly every poll in 2010.

The departure of Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor in April 2010 hurt the Liberals and I am told that many of the party’s traditional big donors in Edmonton are not pleased with the current leadership or Dr. Swann’s last minute appeal for cooperation with other opposition parties. With up to three of the party’s eight MLAs planning on retiring at the next election, the party is hoping to draw on a number of former MLAs defeated in the 2008 election to bolster its slate in the next election. Not exactly the sign of renewal that they will need to build momentum.

Wildrose Alliance
The past year has been a spectacular one for the Wildrose Alliance. With four MLAs, that party now has the third largest caucus in the Assembly, the most charismatic leader, Danielle Smith, a slew of staffers and organizers who have fled the PCs, a growing membership, and a group of 26 already nominated candidates knocking on doors across the province. The annual fundraising reports expected to be released by Elections Alberta in March 2011 will reveal another part of this party’s story in 2010 and will show if they will be able to compete with the PC Party’s multi-million dollar war chest.

The Wildrose Alliance is becoming more adept at using political wedge issues to draw out the weakness of the governing PCs. For example, where the PCs will never admit that they have ever attempted to increase privatization of our public health care system, the Wildrose Alliance is much more open with their desire to introduce private insurance and private providers (of course, their arguments around private health care delivery hit a bump in the road when they decided to defend the bankrupt Health Resource Centre in Calgary).

On the municipal front, Ms. Smith briefly entered the City Centre Airport redevelopment debate and received a stunning rebuke from Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel. While Ms. Smith’s entry into the debate does not appear to have helped that cause, it did give her party the opportunity to organize in their weakest region of the province (a maneuver that appears to have paid off).

A party cannot grow this fast without bumps along the road and the Wildrose has had a few. A few months ago, the entire Board of Directors of that party’s Little Bow Constituency Association resigned over allegations of central party interference in the nomination contest that selected Ian Donovan over Kevin Kinahan in November 2010. This week, the Board of Directors of the Medicine Hat Wildrose Constituency Association resigned over the acclamation of candidate Milvia Bauman.

New Democratic Party
The NDP are well… the NDP. The party’s two MLAs, Brian Mason and Rachel Notley, were vocal opponents in the Assembly this year and the party hosted a reasonably well-attended policy conference. The NDP Caucus released some positive policy this year, but rather than offering a constructive alternative to the current government the two MLAs fell back into the comfortable opposition attack-dog position.

The party shows very little signs of serious growth in the polls outside its traditional areas of support, but they are in a position to benefit from a weakened Liberal Party inside Edmonton’s city limits. Barring a change in leadership, which could see Ms. Notley or former MLA David Eggen step up, the NDP may have missed their window of opportunity to broaden their support beyond a handful of Edmonton constituencies a number of years ago.

Alberta Party
After the merger of the old Alberta Party with the Renew Alberta group in late 2009, the new Alberta Party has experienced huge growth.

Through the Big Listen process, the party attracted many disenchanted Tories, Liberals, New Democrats, former Greens, and independents to its ranks and has grown to nearly 1000 member in just one year. The party has been bolstered through the presidency of Chris Labossiere and in a smart move the party hired community organizer Michael Walters as their provincial organizer in Spring 2010. This still-growing party is expected to have over 40 constituency associations organized by the end of January 2011.

Acting Leader Sue Huff replaced leader Edwin Erickson in November 2010 and a full leadership contest will be launched in January 2011. A few potential candidates have already stepped up, including Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor and Calgarian Chris Tesarski. The Alberta Party received a boost in public and media interest in October 2010, when many of its key organizers helped vault Naheed Nenshi to the Mayoralty in Calgary.

As an active member of this party, I see the Alberta Party’s big challenge of 2011 to move past the Big Listen to the next step of initiating some Big Action.

catching up on health care politics in alberta.

I sure picked an interesting time to leave the province for a few days. After a short absence, it has been exhausting catching up on all the political games and intrigue that happened over the weekend and earlier this week.

Leaked Private Health Care Agenda
The Liberals released an internal government document (pdf) showing a drive towards increased privatization of health care in Alberta through private insurance. The document was presented to the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health and also reported that the months-long province-wide consultation spearheaded by Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne encountered a “high level of skepticism.” This skepticism was widely reported in the media and was not reflected in the committee’s final report released in September 2010.

Liberal leader David Swann

I was surprised to read Liberal leader David Swann‘s quote that this was the first time he had seen any evidence that the government was even considering a more private approach to health care, especially since he spoke at a rally in front of the now bankrupt private-for-profit Health Resource Centre only a few months ago (HRC sits across the street from his constituency office in Calgary-Mountain View). I am willing to believe that Dr. Swann may have been misquoted, but if not he should have a chat with his caucus colleague Kevin Taft, who co-authored the book “Clear Answers: The Economics and Politics of For-Profit Medicine” in 2000.

Earlier this year, former Premier Ralph Klein admitted that he had tried and failed to privatize Alberta’s health care system:

“I tried it twice — the Third Way and the Mazankowski report — and I failed.”
– Former Premier Ralph Klein (Source: “Klein urges two-tired health system,” Edmonton Journal, January 26, 2010)

Emergency Room wait-times amendment fails
Now Independent Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Dr. Raj Sherman‘s amendment to enshrine emergency room wait times in Bill 17: The Alberta Health Act has failed. After a long debate that started last Wednesday, continued overnight until Thursday, and resumed this week Dr. Sherman, members of the three opposition parties, Independent MLA Dave Taylor, and St. Albert PC MLA Ken Allred voted in favor of the amendment (it failed). I understand the intention of Dr. Sherman’s motion and his good intentions in general, but I have to agree with the Tories that enshrining wait-times may create more problems than solutions (or more lawsuits).

After the amendment failed, the Alberta Health Act quickly passed third reading by the PC MLA majority in the Assembly. This new law concentrates a concerning amount of authority over our health care system into the hands of the Minister of Health & Wellness, instead of the elected Assembly.

In five years time we could be walking round a zoo…
Only a week after he was appointed as Acting-CEO of AHS, Dr. Chris Eagle and Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky released a 5-year plan for health care. If you are questioning how a newly appointed Acting-CEO could come up with a five-year plan so quickly, you win the prize. According to Gordon Bontje, one of four recently resigned members of the AHS Superboard, the “new” plan is really a re-marketed version of an old plan.

The plan sets out some goals for emergency room targets and continuing care spaces, but does not address some of the key capacity issues that are creating the problems in the health care system. With this government’s habit of constantly tinkering and re-announcing projects and plans, Albertans should not be blamed for being skeptical about politically convenient re-announcements and health care policy created on the fly.

Stand by your man…
Terri Jackson, wife of now former AHS President and CEO Stephen Duckett, has written a letter to the Edmonton Journal defending her husband and criticizing the government for how it has handled health care.

PC MLA Fred Horne

Was Fred Horne just being “Fred friendly”?
Rumours began to emerge late last week questioning Dr. Sherman’s mental health. The whispering began after MLA Mr. Horne placed a phone call to the head of the Alberta Medical Association, Dr. Patrick White, concerning the state of Dr. Sherman’s mental health. A self-described friend of Dr. Sherman’s, Mr. Horne held a media conference last Friday clarifying that he did make the call, but it was not to discredit the Doctor.

It might just be me, but am pretty sure that calling up the head of your friend’s professional association to question the state of his mental health and then talking to the media about it does not make you a good friend (especially when this friend is an MLA and medical doctor who has just been suspended from your party’s caucus for being highly critical of their health care policies).

December 4 Rally for Public Healthcare
In response to the months-long political frenzy around health care, the Friends of Medicare are organizing a rally at the Legislature on Saturday, December 4 at 1:00pm. Speakers include Dr. Sherman, United Nurses of Alberta President President Heather Smith, the Whitemud Citizens for Public Health‘s Elaine Fleming, and the Friends of Medicare’s David Eggen.

stephen duckett has been resigned.

After less that two years at the helm of Alberta Health Services, President and CEO Stephen Duckett was relieved of his duties by the AHS board of directors. As they made their decision, board members were on the recieving end of pressure from their political masters in the provincial cabinet.

On The Rutherford Show this morning, AHS Board Chairman Ken Hughes said that “we did receive very clear directions from the Minister,” which suggests that the AHS Board’s autonomy disappeared once Dr. Duckett became a political liability for the PC Government. Speaking on CBC Radio this morning, AlbertaScan editor Paul McLoughlin said that the AHS Board had initially decided to suspend Duckett for two weeks until Minister Gene Zwozdesky ordered them to revisit their decision and terminate Dr. Duckett.

In what can only be described as bizarre day, the AHS press conference announcing Mr. Duckett’s future was rescheduled at least four times yesterday. Originally scheduled for 1:00pm, the conference was first rescheduled for 10:30am, then 3:30pm, and finally 4:45pm when the announcement was finally made.

A similar incident occurred later that evening, when a media conference scheduled for Premier Ed Stelmach and Minister Zwozdesky was moved from 5:15pm to 6:30pm. Unfortunately, the media room at the Legislative Assembly was half packed with reporters by the time Liberal caucus Communications Director Neil Mackie waltzed in to let the media know that the conference had been rescheduled.

There has to be some irony in that for everything he did during his time as CEO, it was the now infamous “I’m eating my cookie” video on YouTube video that was the catalyst for his dismissal. It used to be said that you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. This experience lends some credibility to a new saying, never pick a fight with anybody who has a free YouTube account.

For all his faults as the chief administrator of Alberta’s health services, removing Dr. Duckett from his position will not solve the challenges facing the system. Although Dr. Duckett was not even close to universally loved in the health care system, he did not create many of the large problems in health care. The sole responsibility for many of the problems facing our health care system fall to a government that has become accustomed to constantly restructuring, and even creating near-chaos, within a public health care system that all Albertans depend on.

Meanwhile, MLAs were in the Assembly for an extended all-nighter until early this morning to debate an amendment to Bill 17: The Alberta Health Act (the amendment was introduced by now Independent Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman). Dr. Sherman’s amendment would introduce legislated wait-times for emergency room visits.

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.