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.
Along with a flurry of attacks on provincial parks and public sector unions, and pushing for increased autonomy from Ottawa at the same time as the provincial government was increasingly relying on federal funding, the UCP, usually led by Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon used every opportunity to attack the New Democratic Party opposition. Rachel Notley and the NDP responded in kind.
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.
Shandro’s ongoing dispute with the Alberta Medical Association, including a temper-tantrum in the driveway outside a physician’s house, has poisoned the relationship between the government and doctors in the middle of a pandemic. The threat of doctors leaving rural Alberta practices has created an uncomfortable divide in the UCP Caucus between rural MLAs worried about the impact of losing doctors in their communities and Calgary MLAs not wanting to back down from a fight.
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.
With its revenues in the tank, the government continues to refuse to consider options to diversify its revenue streams, meaning Toews, who usually fills the roll of the adult in the room, will likely be announcing big cuts and layoffs when the Legislature returns for a one-day fiscal update debate on August 27.
To top it off, Calgary economist Trevor Tombe has declared Alberta is now a “have-not” province.
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.
Not: Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu (MLA Edmonton-South West): Carrying a definitively paternalistic approach to the provincial government’s relationship with municipalities, Madu introduced changes to local elections laws that led the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association to declare that their relationship with the minister was broken.
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.
The much-lauded “Fightback” strategy touted by Savage and Kenney, which features a scandal-plagued Canadian Energy Centre and a $3.5 million secret public inquiry, seems to amount to the minister accusing companies like Total and financial institutions like Deutsche Bank of being “highly-hypocritical.” The world is moving away from Alberta’s oil sands and the government is either unable or unwilling to face that challenge.
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.
Not: Marlin Schmidt (MLA Edmonton-Gold Bar): Schmidt’s comments about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were an unnecessary distraction at a point when it looked like the NDP were on a role. Smarten up, Marlin.