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.
The PCs faced criticism over sending junkets of Cabinet Ministers to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games while the Assembly was in session to hobnob with international business leaders on the Alberta Olympic Train. The PCs also made changes that lowered the amount of resource royalties collected by the provincial government, effectively undoing in one day the long process of industry consultation, economic study, and public relations that they had undertaken prior to the 2008 election.
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.
With the exception of Health critic Kevin Taft and Calgary International Airport-tunnel advocate Darshan Kang, the Official Opposition Liberals struggled to focus during this session. David Swann‘s rag-tag Liberal caucus gained some attention after releasing a new oil and gas policy, but have had a difficult time finding a role in the new and increasingly dominant political narrative being developed between the PCs and the Wildrose Alliance.
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).
The NDP caucus of Brian Mason and Rachel Notley did what they do well this session: get media attention. Rather than striking out on their own when their position in the Question Period line-up was in jeopardy, they joined with the Liberals and Wildrose Alliance at the press gallery podium to present a united front against this change. On the policy front, the NDP released a report on Health Care that was generated after a series of town hall meetings.
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 Hebb advised 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.