Alberta Politics

24-hours in the life of a student leader the day tuition was removed from legislation

Photo: ACTISEC President Jon Hoffman, Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Liberal MLA Dave Taylor, NDP MLA Raj Pannu, and CAUS Chairperson Dave Cournoyer in the media room at the Alberta Legislature on May 9, 2006.

This week’s news about the Alberta Government extending the tuition freeze and legislating the formula to increase tuition reminded me of the day I came very close to being kicked out of the Legislature.

Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt introduced Bill 19: An Act to Improve the Affordability and Accessibility of Post-Secondary Education in the Legislative Assembly this week. If passed, Bill 19 will implement a new framework that will regulate tuition and mandatory non-instructional fees and provide a new measure of fairness for students enrolled at Alberta’s colleges and universities.

Bill 19 will cap each post-secondary institutions average tuition and apprenticeship fee increases to the Consumer Price Index and allow the minister to regulate mandatory non-instructional fees and international student tuition. It also gives student leaders a more meaningful voice in the process.

These are significant changes but, closer to the heart of this writer, Schmidt is bringing Alberta’s tuition policy out from behind the closed doors of the government boardrooms and returning it to public light in legislation.

In 2006, I was elected Vice-President External of the University of Alberta Students’ Union and chosen as chairperson of the Council of Alberta University Students, an organization that represented undergraduate students from the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, and the University of Lethbridge. It was a interesting time to be a student leader in Alberta. The price of oil was high and political change was in the air.

After 13 years as premier, Ralph Klein was approaching the end of his time in office, and he was backtracking on a pledge made during a 2005 televised address that Alberta would have the most affordable tuition in Canada.

It happened that May 9, 2006 was an exciting and dramatic day to step in a new role as chairperson of CAUS. Then-Minister of Advanced Education Denis Herard announced he would introduce Bill 40: Post-secondary Learning Amendment Act, which would remove the tuition formula from the Post-Secondary Learning Act and move it into regulations. The formula as it then existed was complicated and needed to be reformed, but removing it from legislation meant that future changes to how much tuition could be raised in Alberta would be made in a closed door cabinet meeting, rather than required to be debated in front of the public on the floor of the Legislative Assembly.

The leaders of Alberta’s student movement were concerned that removing the policy from legislation would lead to further increases, rather than the affordability Klein had promised.

We decided that a quick response was best.

My first full-day as CAUS chairperson started with an early morning press conference in the media room in the basement of the Alberta Legislature Building.It was my first time participating in a press conference of any kind where I would be front and centre.

I was joined by Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon, ACTISEC president Jon Hoffman, and the Advanced Education critics from the Liberal and New Democratic Party critics, Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor and Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Raj Pannu.

It was a big deal at the time that the Liberal and NDP critics joined us at the press conference, and it may have been the first time the two parties had ever participated in a press conference together. I remember there were some moments of heated dispute between staffers from the two opposition caucuses about which critic would speak first, and I recall the issue was settled in favour of Pannu because the NDP Caucus had booked the media room for the press conference.

The media room was packed with reporters as we read our statements arguing for transparency and accountability of the cost of education. It was the first time I had ever done something like this and it was nerve racking. Without the help of Moore-Kilgannon (who is now Minister Schmidt’s Chief of Staff) and the incredibly resourceful Duncan Wojtaszek, then-executive director of CAUS, I am not sure I would have even had my talking points straight.

It was political maneuvering on our part to hold the early morning press conference. We hoped to pre-empt a press conference that the minister of advanced education was scheduled to hold on the same topic later that morning. Little did we know that Herard would never show up to his own press conference.

After our media event ended we did a few more interviews and later joined the representatives from the University of Calgary Students’ Union for a tour of the Legislature. While on the tour, NDP Caucus staffer Tony Clark rushed to tell us that the minister had canceled his press conference and snuck out of the building before the media could track him down.

With that news in hand, we held an impromptu media scrum on the third floor of the Legislature. It wasn’t until I spotted Klein walk past our scrum that I realized that we had planted ourselves right outside the doors of Room 307 – the Premier’s Office – which was apparently considered a major security violation.

To our surprise, after the scum ended and the reporters disbursed to file their stories, U of A SU president Samantha Power and I were escorted by Legislature security to the front doors of the building. The guards gave us a stern talk about why we weren’t allowed to hold a scrum outside the Premier’s Office. After some heated negotiations, we convinced the guards that evicting us and presumably banning us from re-entering the building would result in us holding another press conference on the Legislature steps minutes later.

I didn’t believe that day could get any more exciting but I was proven wrong when CAUS received an urgent call from the Minister Herard’s office. He wanted to meet with us as soon as possible.

We met with the minister a few hours later in a conference room at the Delta Hotel in downtown Edmonton. The meeting was memorable but completely underwhelming. The minister listened to our arguments why keeping the tuition policy in legislation would ensure transparency and accountability for students but he offered nothing more than platitudes and strange metaphors in return.

Herard’s short time in cabinet would be remembered for his desire to “cross the wisdom bridge” and “build an army of mentors.”

Eight days later, Progressive Conservative MLAs voted to remove the tuition policy from legislation by passing Bill 40. The minister was shuffled into the backbenchers later that year when Ed Stelmach entered the Premier’s Office.

At the press conference early that morning, I told the assembled media that students were prepared to wait until the next time the legislature met to have a new policy implemented, so that the policy would be embedded in an act of the legislature. If the tuition policy was not in legislation, it was no good to us, I said.

I never expected the policy to ever be returned to legislation. And while the fight to lower the cost of and eliminate tuition fees needs to continue, 12 years later the tuition policy is finally out from behind closed doors and back where it should be – enshrined in legislature. And it is a big deal.

Alberta Politics

PC Party patronage machine grinds to a halt, future of appointees unknown

After 44 years as government, Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party built an impressive patronage machine. For many decades, there very likely has not been a board with provincially appointed members that did not enjoy the presence of a PC Party member. That political machine ground to a halt on May 5 when Albertans swept Rachel Notley‘s New Democratic Party into office.

As the NDP transition into office is the first real change of power since 1971, we can expect that many PC-connected appointees on numerous agencies, boards and commissions will exit or not have their terms renewed in the next few years. The same can be said for a slew of ideologically-based advocacy groups that have enjoyed generous funding from the PC Government in recent years.

While having a PC Party membership should not automatically preclude an individual from serving on a public board in the future, as many honest Albertans have held a membership in that party over its four decades in power, it will no longer be a golden ticket into the corridors of power in Alberta.

Here is a quick look at some prominent PC Party members, supporters and former MLAs and cabinet ministers who are currently serving in government appointed roles at colleges and universities:

Here are a number of other high-profile PC supporters who are serving in government appointed roles:

The last Social Credit Party education minister, Robert Clark, currently serves as chair of the Board of Governors of Olds College. Mr. Clark was elected as Social Credit MLA for Olds-Didsbury in 1960 at the age of 23 and served until 1981. He was Leader of the Official Opposition from 1973 to 1980.

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.