After a very eventful summer in Alberta politics, Dave and Adam tackle big questions about Alberta’s fiscal challenges (and revenue problems) and Premier Jason Kenney’s promised ” fiscal reckoning,” the mini-cabinet shuffle, Erin O’Toole’s win in the Conservative Party of Canada leadership race, what a return to school during a global pandemic looks like, and more. We also answer some great questions submitted by listeners.
Thank you to everyone who submitted recommendations for the Alberta Politics Summer Reading List. With summer coming to an end, now is time to start thinking about what Alberta politics books you want to read while cozying up next to a warm fire this fall.
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When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Alberta five months ago, our Legislative Assembly was one of only a handful of provincial assemblies that continued with a mostly regular sitting schedule. Premier Jason Kenney and his ministers frequently quoted Winston Churchill and compared the current pandemic to the Nazi blitz of the United Kingdom during World War II. But the narrative of fighting on the beaches and uniting Albertans did not stick around for long.
United Conservative Party MLAs were eager to continue the regular business of the Legislature and Kenney barely skipped a beat in continuing to implement a political agenda aimed at dismantling government regulation and imposing swift changes to health care, education and labour laws.
While the UCP enjoys a big majority in the Legislature, and the continued support of enough Albertans to probably form another majority government (albeit likely smaller) if an election were held tomorrow, the government’s decision to move forward with a business as usual approach further entrenched some political divides that grew more conciliatory in other provinces. While other premiers were pulling their provinces together, and enjoying popularity bumps as a result, Alberta’s premier actively pushed people apart.
Politics as usual meant that unlike other provinces, where government and opposition parties generally worked together or at least put partisan politics on hold, in Alberta, politics remained heated and partisan.
If someone out there was keeping a political scorecard of Alberta’s MLAs, here is look at a few individuals who stood out during this session:
Not: Health Minister Tyler Shandro (MLA Calgary-Acadia): Appointed to oversee a major overhaul and dismantling of Alberta’s public health care system, Shandro’s combative and confrontational approach has undermined much of the good will generated by the government’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pincher Creek Mayor Don Anderberg announced this week that the town’s council had to step in to convince doctors to not withdraw their services from that community’s hospital. Anderberg condemned Shandro and accused him of not being honest about the impact that doctors leaving the hospital could have on the community.
Not: Education Minister Adriana LaGrange (MLA Red Deer-North): The soft-spoken former Catholic school trustee from central Alberta spent much of her first year in office battling with school boards and the Alberta Teachers’ Association, leaving her with few allies when schools were forced online at the beginning of the pandemic.
Now, with a return to school plan that appears woefully inadequate, LaGrange faces opposition and a lot of unanswered questions from parents, teachers and students who will be returning to school as normal in September.
Hot: Janis Irwin (MLA Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood), Rakhi Pancholi (MLA Edmonton-Whitemud), and David Shepherd (MLA Edmonton-City Centre): These three NDP MLAs stood out to me as some of the most effective voices and sharpest critics in the opposition benches during this session.
Not: Finance Minister Travis Toews (MLA Grande Prairie-Wapiti): The provincial budget was barely tabled when the international price of oil plunged once again, putting the Alberta government’s optimistic projected natural resource royalty revenues in the realm of fantasy for the foreseeable future. The drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic changed Alberta’s reality, but that did not stop Toews from shepherding an outdated budget through the legislative approval process.
Hot: Mike Ellis (MLA Calgary-West): Ellis’ role as chair of the Standing Committee on Private Bills and Private Members’ Public Bills will be unnoticed by most Albertans, but he has succeeded in fairly navigating some contentious issues that have arisen at committee hearings on private members’ bills this session. The expanded committee process for private members bills is new and is a very procedural and important part of how laws are made in Alberta.
Many rural municipalities have spoken out about oil and gas companies that are either unable or refusing to pay their municipal taxes and now tax structure changes implemented by the province threaten to strip oil and gas tax revenue from those same rural municipalities.
According to a statement from Camrose County: “Council and administration are extremely concerned about the serious impacts of this decision because it will mean an increase in property tax, reduction of services, or combination of both to make up for this lost revenue.
While the stated intention of this decision is to increase the competitiveness of oil and gas companies in this hard time, these changes will disproportionately benefit large oil and gas companies and harm smaller local firms.”
Not: Energy Minister Sonya Savage (MLA Calgary-North West): It is a pretty grim time to be an Energy Minister in Alberta. Former pipeline lobbyist Sonya Savage had some success in negotiating funding from the federal government to clean up orphan and abandoned well sites, but her brave rhetoric has not matched the reality of the world’s energy market. Big oil companies like Total are pulling out of Alberta and barely a week goes by without a major investment house or bank divesting its funds from Alberta’s oil sands.
Not: Shane Getson (MLA Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland): Getson’s adolescent behavior – telling the NDP that they have a special VIP section reserved in Hell and allegedly making inappropriate gestures toward opposition MLAs – are unbecoming of an elected representative. Grow up, Shane.
Hot: Speaker Nathan Cooper (MLA Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills): An effort to demystify the Legislative Assembly, Cooper’s weekly videos highlighting different parts of the Legislature Building and functions of the Assembly has been entertaining and educating. Cooper and his staff should be commended for recognizing the opportunity to open the Legislature to Albertans through social media.
Public education advocate and school trustee Michael Janz joins Dave Cournoyer on this episode of the Daveberta Podcast to discuss the state of public education in Alberta and how cuts in the United Conservative Party‘s first provincial budget will impact the education system in our province. We also discuss what is behind the UCP’s drive to expand private and charter schools, and why the New Democratic Party did not cut the 70% subsidy for private schools in Alberta while they were in government.
We also opened the mailbag to answer some of the great Alberta politics questions sent in by our listeners, and announce the launch of the Best of Alberta Politics 2019 survey which starts later this week.
A huge thanks to our producer, Adam Rozenhart, who tried to keep us on track during this episode.
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New Democratic Party MLAs nominated: Three New Democratic Party MLAs were chosen as their party’s candidates for the next election at meetings held on May 6 and May 12, 2018. MLA Maria Fitzpatrick was nominated in Lethbridge-East and MLA Christina Gray was nominated in Edmonton-Mill Woods on May 6 and MLA Brian Malkinson was nominated in Calgary-Currie at a meeting on May 12, 2018. Gray currently serves as Minister of Labour and Minister Responsible for Democratic Renewal.
The NDP have scheduled nomination meetings in Calgary-McCall on June 9, 2018 and June 11, 2018 in Lethbridge-West, where NDP MLA Shannon Phillips has already announced her plans to run for re-election.
Another UCP MLA retiring from politics: United Conservative Party MLA Wes Taylor announced in a note on his Facebook page that he would not seek re-election in 2019. Taylor is recovering from having recently undergone open heart surgery. The Battle River-Wainwright district he has represented since 2015 will be significantly redistributed in the next election into the redrawn Camrose, Drumheller-Stettler, and Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright districts.
It’s truly been and honor and a privilege to serve the constituents of Battle River-Wainwright over the past 3 years as…
The NDP have scheduled a nomination meeting in that district on May 25, 2018 and are expected to select Nicole Mooney as their candidate. Mooney is an English teacher at St. Joseph’s High School in Red Deer and the Communications and Political Engagement Officer with Alberta Teachers’ Association Local 80.
A by-election will be called in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake by August 5, 2018 following the resignation of UCP MLA Don MacIntyre in February 2018 after he was charged with sexual assault and sexual interference.
Brooks-Medicine Hat – Jim Black is seeking the Alberta Party nomination. Black ran for the Alberta Party in the Medicine Hat district in the 2015 election, earning 5.7 percent of the vote.
Calgary-McCall – Jasraj Singh Hallan is seeking the UCP nomination.
Calgary-North – Jun Lin is seeking the UCP nomination. He ran in the 2017 Calgary municipal election in Ward 3, placing third with 25 percent of the vote.
Calgary-Varsity – Michael Kim is seeking the UCP nomination. Kim is the president of MKMK Education and MKMK Insurance.
Camrose – Dawn Anderson is seeking the UCP nomination. Anderson is the general manager of the Camrose Resort Casino.
Drumheller-Stettler – Mark Nikota is seeking the Alberta Party nomination. Nikota was Mayor of Hanna from 2010 to 2013 and currently works as the Chief Administrative Officer of the Village of Delia.
Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview – David Egan (not to be confused with David Eggen) is seeking the UCP nomination. He is listed as the Chief Financial Officer of the UCP association in the neighbouring Edmonton-Manning district.
Edmonton-Castle Downs – Gordon Reekie and Ed Ammar are seeking the UCP nomination. Both candidates are Real Estate agents. Ammar served as chair of the UCP interim board until the recent founding convention and was Liberal Party candidate in the neighbouring Edmonton-Decore district in the 2012 election.
Edmonton-Glenora – Immigration consultant Marjorie Newman is seeking the UCP nomination. Carla Stolte is seeking the Alberta Party nomination.
Edmonton-Manning – Jitender Sahni is seeking the Alberta Party nomination.
Edmonton-Meadows – Joel Mullan is seeking the UCP nomination.
Edmonton-North West – Ali Eltayeb is seeking the UCP nomination. He is the owner and manager of Liberty Tax franchises in Edmonton.
Edmonton-Rutherford – Aisha Rauf is seeking the Alberta Party nomination. She is an instructor and according to her website biography is waiting for her PhD Linguistics thesis defence. She was interviewed in a September 2017 episode of the Broadcast.
Edmonton-West Henday – Winston Leung is seeking the Alberta Party nomination.
Lesser Slave Lake – Garrett Tomlinson is seeking the UCP nomination. Tomlinson served as a councillor in Northern Sunrise County from 2013 to 2017 and country reeve from 2014 to 2017. He is listed online as a communications coordinator for the Lubicon Lake First Nation.
Livingstone-Macleod – Justin Murphy is seeking the UCP nomination. He was a candidate for High River town council in the 2017 municipal election.
UCP opposition to Bill 24: An Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances, has caught the party on the wrong side of public opinion and on the wrong side of history. The bill would protect the privacy of students who decide to participate in a student-organized Gay-Straight Alliance and prevent those students to be outed to their parents by teachers or school administrators.
While introducing an amendment to Bill 24, Calgary-West UCP MLA Mike Ellis suggested GSAs could be a cover for the teaching of a covert sexual education curriculum. Ellis told the Assembly that his party “unequivocally support GSAs” but he believed the bill “deliberately or unwittingly erodes parental rights.”
“…it’s deeply disappointing that the members opposite continue to peddle dangerous conspiracy theories instead of accepting the simple fact that this is about protecting kids,” said Calgary-Hawkwood NDP MLA Michael Connolly in response to Ellis’ proposed amendment.
“If my son or daughter, having reached, say, the age of ten or eleven, is lured into a school sex club, is persuaded that he or she must be homosexual, acts accordingly, acquires HIV and then AIDS and remains crippled for life, whom do I sue?” wrote Byfield. “The government, or the minister that helped bring this tragedy upon us?”
I was surprised to discover the recent announcement that Byfield will be awarded a Senate 150 Medal by Edmonton Conservative Party Senator Betty Unger. The medal recipients were chosen “in recognition of their significant contributions to their communities.” According to a message on Unger’s Facebook page, the medals will be presented in a ceremony on November 14.
Despite the opposition of the UCP and some outdated conservative commentators, educators and school board trustees continue to voice their support for the NDP’s Bill 24.
David Keohane, superintendent of the Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, told the St. Albert Gazette that his board appears to be in compliance with the new bill. “Job number one is ensuring the safety and well-being of a child while they’re at school,” Keohane told the Gazette, noting that outing a child before he or she is ready can harm them.
Despite school trustees from across the province voicing their support for Bill 24, Kenney argues that teachers should be allowed to decide when to inform parents when a student joins a GSA.
“We trust highly trained educators to use their professional judgment to make decisions in the best interests of children, particularly given that this policy applies to children as young as five years of age,” Kenney said in a press conference on November 2. It is unclear where Kenney found evidence that five year olds have been organizing GSAs, which seems like a fairly silly and weird claim.
Perhaps the most convincing argument I have heard this week in response to Kenney’s opposition to Bill 24 came in the form of a comment on Facebook:
“I’m frustrated by the way he is using the “teachers know better than politicians” line. Actually, as a teacher, we don’t. The point of the legislation is that the student gets to decide when and to whom they come out, because that is best for the mental health of the student. I feel like he is trying to frame the issue to make himself appear that he is on the side of the teachers, when in reality, many support this bill because it supports the mental health of some of our most vulnerable students. He says he doesn’t want to out LGBTQ+ students, when mere months ago he was saying exactly that to pander to his social conservative base. So frustrating.”
Kenney’s reaction to Bill 24 this week actually surprised me. I did not expect the UCP leader to embrace a progressive agenda, but I believed a 20-year veteran of Ottawa politics would at a bare minimum take a reasonable approach to creating safe school environments for students, not, as Postmedia columnist Paula Simons tweeted this week, sound an “air raid siren of homophobia.”
The fall session of the Alberta Legislature ended last week and MLAs will now spend the next few weeks working in their constituencies until the Assembly returns in early 2016. The Assembly passed nine pieces of legislation introduced by Alberta’s New Democratic Party government in its first full session of the Legislature since it formed government.
The first four bills introduced by the government reflected key promises made by Rachel Notley‘s NDP during the 2015 election. One private members bill, introduced by Independent Calgary-Bow MLA Deborah Drever, was passed by the Assembly (a rare feat for opposition MLAs).
Here is a quick look at the ten bills that were passed by MLAs since the NDP formed government in 2015:
Bill 1: An Act to Renew Democracy in Alberta
Introduced by Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, Bill 1 banned corporate and union donations to provincial political parties in Alberta. The bill received royal assent on June 29, 2015, but was made retroactive on June 15, 2015. This new law was a major blow to the Progressive Conservative Party, which had become accustomed to relying heavily on corporate donations to fund their campaigns and operations. The ban was not extended to municipal elections.
Bill 2: An Act to Restore Fairness to Public Revenue
Introduced by Finance Minister Joe Ceci, Bill 2 eliminated Alberta’s 10 percent flat tax and introduced a progressive taxation system with five rates of personal income tax up to 15 percent for income above $300,000. Bill 2 also increased Alberta’s corporate tax rate from 10 percent to 12 percent, bringing our province in line with Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Despite the increase, tax rates in Alberta still remain lower than what existed during much of the time Ralph Klein served as Premier.
Bill 5: Public Sector Compensation Transparency Act
Introduced by Ms. Ganley, Bill 5 expanded the “sunshine list” to include employees of public agencies, boards, commissions, post-secondary institutions and health service entities whose earnings are more than $125,000 annually. This is a continuation of work already done by the previous PC government and has been criticizedby supporters of the NDP as “bad policy.”
Bill 6: Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act
Introduced by Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson, Bill 6 introduced occupational health and safety and mandatory Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for employees of farming operations. Alberta is currently the only province in Canada without OH&S laws and employment standards coverage for farm and ranch workers. Amid protests by farmers and ranchers, the government introduced amendments to exempt farm and ranch owners and their families from the bill. This was undoubtably the most controversial legislation passed by the NDP government in 2015.
Bill 8: Public Education Collective Bargaining Act
Introduced by Education Minister David Eggen, Bill 8restructures collective bargaining between teachers, school boards and the government. The bill initially would have had the government be the sole party negotiating with the Alberta Teachers’ Association on matters that should be bargained centrally versus locally but an amendment to the bill allowed a new employer bargaining association to negotiate with the ATA to decide.
Bill 9: Appropriation Act, 2015
Introduced by Mr. Ceci, Bill 9 provides budget funding authority to the Government of Alberta and the Legislative Assembly for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Bill 204: Residential Tenancies (Safer Spaces for Victims of Domestic Violence) Amendment Act, 2015
In any other job, breaking the law would likely be cause for dismissal, but this does not appear to be the case if you are a cabinet minister in Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government.
NDP leadership candidate MLA David Eggen, himself a teacher, chimed in on Mr. Johnson’s actions, saying “(It) shows a lack of respect for the teachers and a lack of respect for the law.”
Mr. Johnson, who appears to be intent on dragging the professional credibility of Alberta educators through the mud, also turned his attention to school board administrators this week by demanding they hand over all complaints against teachers from the past ten years. Tory MLAs are expected to discuss Mr. Johnson’s reign of terror at this week’s annual “Stampede Caucus Meeting” in Calgary.
Joe Anglin unleashed
Rabble-rouser MLA Joe Anglin was defeated in his bid to be a Wildrose candidate in the next election. The first-term MLA was defeated by local constituency president Jason Nixon in a controversy-ridden party nomination contest in Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre. Mr. Nixon’s brother, Jeremy Nixon, is the nominated Wildrose candidate in Calgary-Klein.
Mr. Anglin now has some decisions to make before the next election. He could quietly complete his term as a Wildrose MLA and retire at the next election, or he could run for another party or as an Independent candidate (given his style, this may be the likely option). A property rights activist and former leader of the Alberta Greens, Mr. Anglin sparked a political wildfire in central Alberta before the 2012 election over widespread opposition to electrical transmission line construction.
Nenshi calls out paid political agitator Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called out the untransparent Canadian Taxpayers Federation after its spokesperson was invited to speak at the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association conference. Mr. Nenshi has been in a prolonged public feud with the special interest group’s paid political agitator, Derek Fildebrandt. While the Taxpayers Federation preaches transparency for government, it refuses to make public a list of its own financial backers.
This is at least the second time Mr. Butler has switched parties in recent years. Before joining the Liberals, he ran as an NDP candidate in Edmonton-Rutherford in the 2008 provincial election and in Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont in the 2008 federal election. He was the Liberal candidate in Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont in the 2011 federal election and in Edmonton-Mill Creek in the 2012 provincial election.
It is not uncommon for government leaders to have advance staff, but in this case, like so many of the decisions that led to Ms. Redford’s downfall, it appears to have been done in secret (the cost of the staffer and their travel was not included in the publicly available travel expenses disclosures).
If advance work was indeed required, and there are reasons why this could be the case, it is hard to understand why the Premier’s Office would not simply hire the services of a consultant in the country or city Ms. Redford was planning to visit. Was it really necessary to hire a dedicated employee for this task?
Similar comments were made by Ms. Redford during her run for the PC Party leadership and during the 2012 election. Soon after, the PC government turned on public sector workers, threatening to legislate the contracts of teachers and public service employees and attacking their pensions. Mr. Prentice will need to follow his words with actions.
Mr. Prentice also said he will accelerate the construction of new school buildings, a promise that was originally made by Ms. Redford, but recently downplayed by Infrastructure Minister Wayne Drysdale last week. In a stunning admission, Mr. Drysdale told the media that the P3 (Public-Private Partnership) option for building the new schools was too expensive.
But when it comes to governance of the education system, it is not clear what role Mr. Prentice believes locally elected school boards and municipalities should play in this decision making process, as they face intense growth pressures to raise new schools and shutter others.
Another prime target for a demotion in Mr. Prentice’s cabinet is Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose budget reporting structure was today the target of an open-letter from a group of retired Tory politicians.
Whoever leads Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservatives into the next election (probably Jim Prentice) will have some serious challenges to deal with.
After more than forty years in office, Alberta’s natural governing party has become accustomed to getting its way, regardless of who stands in their way.
Perhaps realizing how much damage this has caused his party, interim PC leader Premier Dave Hancockapologized to attendees at high-priced party fundraising dinners in Calgary and Edmonton.
“I’m sorry we damaged Albertans’ confidence in our party,” Mr. Hancock said. “I apologize for losing touch with our grassroots, for not listening to you the way we should have. This behaviour is just not acceptable.”
Delivering this type of apology is a big step for any PC leader, even an interim one. After years of public controversy and internal turmoil under previous leaders, the PCs hope that Albertans will forget their misdeeds and elect them to office for a fourteenth term.
But apologies need to be followed up with action.
Last week, more than 400 representatives of the Alberta Teachers’ Association unanimously stood in a non-confidence vote against Education Minister Jeff Johnson. The Tories have slowed down their drastic reforms to public sector pensions and backed down on legislative threats to impose a contract on public sector workers, but Mr. Johnson’s recent attack on front-line educators appears to be off-script.
Even the secret Skypalace in the Federal Building, which Albertans had been told was cancelled, is still being built (albeit without the bedrooms). A strong case can be made for an official residence for the Premier, and especially official meeting spaces to hold functions and host dignitaries. But for some reason, even when they claim to be upfront and transparent, the Tories still do not feel they need to justify these expenses to the public. They continue to operate in secret.
The leadership vacuum is only one of the problems facing the big-tent PC Party. Their next leader will inherit a party with a severe cultural problem that becomes prevalent in any long-governing party – an entitlement problem. And this cannot be fixed simply by changing who is sitting in the premier’s office and it will certainly not be changed with platitudes and soundbites.
Albertans deserve better than what the Tories are offering. The Tories need to prove Albertans can have confidence in their party. They need to prove that Albertans can trust them to govern in the interest of the province, not in the interests of preserving their own political dynasty.
As the PC Party and the Alberta New Democrats begin their leadership races, I will be taking a short break from political punditry to enjoy the salty breeze and down-home hospitality of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In my absence, I recommend you follow my colleague David Climenhaga at his excellent AlbertaDiary.ca blog.