It was supposed to be a boring week in Alberta politics. What was billed as a low-key and low-substance return of the Assembly for its fall sitting may still be lacking on substance, but it is not as low-key as most political watchers expected.
The Wizard of Zwoz introduces the Alberta Health Act
Health and Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky introduced Bill 17: The Alberta Health Act this afternoon. The Alberta Health Act has been a target of health care advocates since Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne embarked on a province-wide road trip to “consult” Albertans on the proposed Act. The Edmonton Journal’s Sheila Pratt interviewed many of the people at these meetings, yet none of the criticism she discovered was reported in Mr. Horne’s committee’s final report. Minister Zwozdesky’s introductory speech was quick to target opposition to the Bill, which could open the door to further privatization after the next election.
Liberal Point of Order awaits Alberta Health Act
Minister Zwozdesky probably hoped to impress the opposition with his oratory introduction but it did not take long for Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman was less than impressed. Ms. Blakeman was quick to pounce after the Health Minister’s speech, raising a point of order accusing him of improperly using the time allotted for him during the Bill’s first reading. Speaker Ken Kowalski was not amused. He rarely is these days.
Wildrose fundraises and attracts a familiar face
Speaking in front of a crowd of 800 guests, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith held her largest fundraiser yet in Calgary this week (the question and answer period was hosted by 630 CHED host Dave Rutherford). The Wildrose Alliance announced the nomination of three more candidates this week. Against the other opposition parties leaders, Shane McAllister will stand in Calgary-Mountainview and Wayde Lever in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood. In the new Calgary-Greenway, 2008 independent/jettisoned PC candidate Ron Leech who will carry the Wildrose banner against rookie PC MLA Manmeet Bhullar. Mr. Bhullar squeaked out a win against Pastor Leech in 2008 when the local PC constituency organization was in disarray following the retirement of long-time MLA Hung Pham. Pastor Leech was originally nominated by the local PC association, but was removed and replaced by the appointed Mr. Bhullar.
Leaky Fawcett to stand in Calgary-Klein
PC backbencher Kyle Fawcett proposed an amendment to the Electoral Boundaries Commission Final Report that would have his constituency of Calgary-North Hillre-namedCalgary-Klein in the next provincial election (in honour of former Premier Ralph Klein). Mr. Fawcett (known as “Leaky Fawcett” in some political circles) got his wish. Other new constituency names are Strathcona (which will be known as Strathcona-Sherwood Park) and Calgary-Montrose (which will be known as Calgary-Greenway).
The member of four political parties will be gathering for official party functions over the next month. Starting today, the Progressive Conservative’s will be meeting for their policy convention in Calgary. The NDP will be holding their Annual Convention in Red Deer on November 5, 6, and 7. The Alberta Liberals will be electing a new party President, Vice-President Policy, and Secretary at their Annual General Meeting scheduled for November 27 in Red Deer. The new kid on the political block, the Alberta Party will be holding their policy convention on November 13. Here is a video from their recent Annual General Meeting:
Alberta’s Legislative Assembly resumes for Fall Sitting in a constantly changing political environment.
As the leaves fall and winter approaches, so does the resumption of the venerable institution known as the Alberta Legislative Assembly. Much has changed since last year’s Fall Sitting in Edmonton.
When MLAs return to the Assembly next Monday, they will have a few unfinished business to continue. The summer months have been far from quiet on Alberta’s political landscape. Premier Ed Stelmach has focused on promoting the oilsands to both audiences internationally and at home, including a tour with Hollywood Film Director James Cameron.
The Alberta Health Act will likely be the most contentious piece of legislation introduced in this sitting of the Assembly. Originally framed as a replacement for already existing pieces of health care legislation, the PC Government has since backed off after receiving an earful from Albertans in province-wide consultation meetings. The previously expected Alberta Health Act may be a shell of what it was envisioned to be when it is introduced in the next few weeks, but it could leave the door open for further legislative reforms (after the next election?).
At a media conference yesterday, Minister Gene Zwozdesky accepted recommendations from the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health, led by Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne, but used his time to take a defensive stance against his critics. Minister Zwozdesky and Mr. Horne were also unable to fully explain the purpose of their proposed non-legally-binding Health Charter when questioned by reporters. The purpose of the new Alberta Health Act was challenged by Edmonton-Riverview MLA and Liberal Health Critic Kevin Taft, who labelled the Health Charter idea as “vacant” and predicted that the new Act “will be filled with platitudes that have no legal standing and have no recourse.”
I fully expect a continuation of the blood fued between the Wildrose Caucus and Assembly Speaker Ken Kowalski to continue over the next session. Since the Wildrose Caucus grew to three MLAs with the floor-crossing of Mr. Anderson and Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Heather Forsyth in January 2010, Speaker Kowalski has used his power on the Members’ Services Committee to block any further increases in funding to the now third party caucus (the two MLA NDP Caucus still receives more funding that the 3 MLA Wildrose Caucus) and even demand that Danielle Smith‘s name be removed from media releases. Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutilier joined the Wildrose Alliance Party in June 2010, but has remained as an Independent MLA in order to secure more research and communications funding (when he officially joins the Wildrose Caucus next week, their combined funding will decrease).
Since last session, the Wildrose have declared war on Speaker Kowalski outside the Assembly by nominating Senator-in-Waiting Link Byfield as their candidate in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock. Speaker Kowalski has represented variations of that constituency since 1979. Mr. Byfield has been endorsed by former Conservative Members of Parliament John Williams and David Chatters.
Not to be outdone by the insurgent Wildrosers, the PC Party will be holding their Annual Convention in Calgary on October 29 and 30. I am told by a number of sources that the Convention will also serve as the kickoff for a series of “discussion sessions” with PC Party members billed as Speak Easies which will attempt to reconnect the party leadership with an increasingly disillusioned voter-base in the year before the party celebrates its fortieth year in government.
After a brutal Spring sitting that included the high-profile departure of Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor from the Official Opposition Caucus, Liberal Opposition leader David Swann is looking to improve his party’s position this Fall. Dr. Swann is attempting to hitch his horse close to the Reboot Alberta group, which has attracted many partisan and non-partisan activists to its ranks during its two previous gatherings. In an email sent out today from his Calgary-Mountain View constituency office email, Dr. Swann implored his supporters to join him in attending the next Reboot Alberta meeting in Edmonton on November 5 and 6.
The NDP Caucus is probably feeling rightfully jubilant for the election of their Director of Research, Sarah Hoffman, to the Edmonton Public School Board, but those feeling of excitement may be tempered as they enter the Fall Sitting short-staffed. In early October, Communications Director Brookes Merritt left the NDP Caucus to accept a job with the Government of Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau. Until they find a replacement, Chief of Staff Jim Gurnett is covering the Communications portfolio.
Outside the dome of the Assembly Building, there are some very real political changes happening. The new Alberta Party held its Annual General Meeting in Red Deer at the beginning of October and after months of touring the province holding Big Listen events, that party will hold their first policy convention in the same city on November 13.
The new Alberta Party has also moved forward with the hiring of their provincial organizer Michael Walters. The party will also undoubtedly benefit from having many of its members involved in recent municipal election campaigns, including Alberta Party Vice-President Chima Nkemdirim, who was the Campaign Director for Naheed Nenshi’s successful Mayoral campaign in Calgary. Mr. Walters was also heavily involved in the Election Day get out the vote organization that helped get Mayor Stephen Mandel re-elected in Edmonton.
Also not to be ignored is the role that the Wildrose Alliance played in recent municipal elections in the province’s two largest cities. The party has already hired organizers and been nominating candidates for the next provincial election, but leader Danielle Smith’s foray into the City Centre Airport issue in Edmonton and the Airport Tunnel issue in Calgary should not be ignored. Many Wildrose organizers active in the campaigns of Calgary Mayor candidate Ric McIver and Edmonton Mayor candidate David Dorward. While they may not walk away with voters lists, it is clear that they are taking advantage of any opportunity to get an organizational edge over the Progressive Conservatives in the next provincial election.
A lot of attention has been paid to Mayor-elect Nenshi’s victory in the Calgary Mayoral contest (and rightfully so), but he was not the only new Mayor elected on October 18. Seven of Alberta’s medium sized municipalities also elected new Mayor’s this week. In the north west city of Grande Prairie, Bill Given unseated Mayor Dwight Logan. East of Edmonton, Linda Osinchuk unseated Mayor Cathy Olesen to become Mayor of Strathcona County, Rajko Dodic was elected as the new Mayor of Lethbridge. Along the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary, Jeff Mulligan defeated incumbent Mayor Ken Baker in the City of Lloydminster. In the City of Wetaskiwin, Bill Elliot defeated incumbent Mayor Don Montgomery. In Airdrie, Peter Brown defeated incumbent Mayor Linda Bruce. In Alberta’s newest City, Steve Christie was elected Mayor of Lacombe, replacing the retiring Mayor Judy Gordon (who also served as the PC MLA for Lacombe-Stettler from 1993 to 2004). There was a lot of political change happening across Alberta on October 18, 2010. Of course, it is too soon to tell whether this will foreshadow a provincial election expected in March 2012.
The Fall Sitting of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly will likely open with a low level of substantive legislation and legislative debate, but outside the Dome there will be no shortage of new characters and exciting politics.
Tory staffers migrate to more conservative pastures The Wildrose Alliance will claim that they are a lot different than the Progressive Conservatives, but a quick glance at their caucus staff list reveals that a number of former PC caucus staffers are now employed by the tiny insurgent conservative caucus. Brock Harrison worked in the research and communications branch of the PC caucus until he recently joined the Wildrose caucus as their Communications Co-ordinator. Wildrose Legislative Assistant Jeffrey Trynchy was previously employed as a Legislative Assistant in the PC caucus. Shannon Stubbs, Staff Coordinator for the Wildrose Alliance Caucus is the former VP Organization of the PC Party and was a candidate in 2004.
Alberta Health Act Is it simply legislative housekeeping or an agenda to increase the role of privatized medicare in Alberta? Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne‘s travelling committee released a report last week that declared the need to ‘putting people first.’ Instead of including the mixed reviews that were voiced at the public consultation meetings, Mr. Horne’s report focuses on motherhood and apple pie. There are some good points in the report, but it is clear that this report is an exercise in the Tories reporting what they wanted to hear.
Trust me. Really.
NDP leader Brian Mason is setting off on a mission to Earn Your Trust in a fall province-wide tour where he will make a series of policy announcements on fiscal responsibility, the economy, and health care.
In front of almost 200 supporters at a BBQ fundraiser, former MLA Rick Miller announced that he will seek the Liberal nomination in Edmonton-Rutherford in the next provincial election.
The next election will be Mr. Miller’s fourth time standing as a candidate in that constituency. He was narrowly defeated in the race to replace retiring Liberal MLA Percy Wickman by former Reform Party Member of Parliament Ian McClelland in 2001, but trumped Mr. McClelland in 2004 with a 3,048 vote margin.
As MLA he served as Official Opposition Finance critic from 2004 until 2008 and was widely seen to have earned the respect of his caucus colleagues and government members for his respectful questions and intelligent debate. In 2008, Mr. Miller was defeated by PC candidate Fred Horne in a tight race that was decided by a slim-margin of 58 votes.
Rutherford is a constituency where the Liberals could benefit greatly from a vote-split caused by a stronger Wildrose Alliance in the next election. The cynicismgenerated by Mr. Horne’s traveling “Alberta Health Act” road show could also take some shine off this government backbencher who was once touted as a future cabinet minister. A Facebook event for an upcoming local New Democratic Party event lists Melanie Samaroden as a prospective candidate for that party in this constituency.
Today’s much hyped Wildrose Alliance news conference in Calgary did not live up to expectations. When announced yesterday that leader Danielle Smith would “be making an important political announcement” about the her party, the speculation was rampant. Was Preston Manning signing his endorsement pledge? Was Tom Flanagan going be their campaign manager? Was Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Heather Forsyth going to step down to let Ms. Smith to run in a by-election? Were more PC MLAs going to cross the floor?
The news turned out to be ever so underwhelming. Party president Jeff Calloway has stepped down to allow disenchanted former Ralph Klein advisor Hal Walker to enter the role. Last September, Mr. Walker let it be known to the world that he strongly disliked Premier Ed Stelmach when he widely circulated an email that oozed the with entitlement of a longtime-insder who no longer had the ear of the powerful. The underwhelming announcement sparked a some very entertaining social media satire from the political crowd on Twitter this afternoon (follow #waptopstory to see what I mean).
While the underwhelming story of Mr. Walker and the hilarious online reaction grabbed headlines, do not be convinced that nothing important happened today in Alberta politics. Here are three things that you should be paying attention to:
1)Edmonton-Rutherford PC MLA Fred Horne has announced the start of consultations for a new Alberta Health Act. The Act would seek to merge currently existing health care laws under one piece of mega-legislation. As was the case when the PCs created the Post-secondary Learning Act in 2003, the devil will be in the details of what is left in legislation and what will be moved into regulation (or just left out). In a media release, Friends of Medicare‘s David Eggen said: “The Alberta Hospitals Act, and the Alberta Health Care Insurance Act both provide core legal underpinnings for our public system. If they are repealed and not strengthened under the new legislation, it could open the doors wide for a full two-tiered, parallel private health market in the province immediately.”
2) Premier Stelmach announced on the Rutherford Show this morning that Alberta will not be holding a Senate election anytime soon. The terms of Alberta’s current three Senators-in-Waiting will expire in November 2010, but instead of holding an election to replace them, Premier Stelmach and his cabinet will decide in a closed door cabinet meeting to extend their terms. Aside from being anti-democratic, the move also undercuts the opposition parties who were preparing for a Senate election to coincide with the October municipal elections. The Wildrose Alliance began seeking Senate candidates last week and I am told that the new Alberta Party was also organizing a campaign to support a candidate this fall. At this point, Premier Stelmach might as well appoint the Senators-in-Waiting.
3) Alberta’s new Mental Health Patient Advocate is longtime PC-insider Fay Orr. Ms. Orr worked as a media relation advisor to now Senator Elaine McCoy in the early 1990s and in the 1993 election she was the PC candidate in Edmonton-Norwood (she placed third behind Liberal Andrew Beniuk and New Democrat Ray Martin). Following the election, she served as Premier Klein’s spokesperson and was appointed as managing director of the Public Affairs Bureau in 2000 (a position where current PAB Director of New Media and Internet Communications Tom Olsen described her as ‘the chief of all Alberta government talking heads‘). Soon after that, Ms. Orr served as Deputy Minister for a number of Departments, including Community Development; and Government Services, and until today, the Department of Children and Youth Services.
As I wrote in December 2009, It is going to take something much more meaningful than a cabinet shuffle to change PC Party fortunes. One of Premier Ed Stelmach‘s greatest challenges is that his government doesn’t have a defining purpose beyond governing for governing sake, and it shows.
Finance Minister Iris Evansmay keep her job, but there are strong rumors about a comfy patronage appointment as Alberta’s Representative in London, UK. With a strong political pedigree, Doug Horner is a key candidate for promotion – to Finance, or more likely, Health & Wellness. His father, Hugh Horner, served as an MP, MLA, and cabinet minister between 1958 and 1979, including as Deputy Premier and Minister of Agriculture of Alberta.
The rumor mill appears to have come to an unlikely consensus that Minister Ron Liepert will relieve Minister Mel Knight of his position in Energy. Delicate as a wrecking ball, Minister Liepert oversaw the haphazard dissolution of Alberta’s regional health authorities and centralization under the Alberta Health Services ‘Superboard.’ I am sure that the energy sector will love him.
As the Godfather of Edmonton PC MLAs, Dave Hancock is expected to remain Education Minister, not interrupting the ongoing School Act review. Also expected to remain in their job is Environment Minister Rob Renner, who has proved his ability to deliver a respectful media performance on dirty files like climate change and the oilsands.
First-term MLA Diana McQueenwooed PC delegates in her introduction of Premier Stelmach at their 2009 leadership review convention. McQueen could be a strong addition to a weak cabinet. After playing interference for Premier Stelmach on the Alberta Hospital Edmonton bed closures, another rookie MLA, Fred Horne,has been rumored to be a candidate for Minister of Health, but more recently has been rumoured to replace Minister Horner in Advanced Education. Horne served as Executive Assistant to Minister Hancock,who also he served in the portfolio.
As is tradition here at daveberta.ca, I have created an annual list of Alberta MLAs who have caught my eye over the past year (see the 2008 MLA review). Due to a large grouping of MLAs who through sheer numbers appear almost indistinguishable as they sit in the backbenches of the 72 70 MLA Progressive Conservative caucus, this list focuses on the handful of MLAs who caught my attention for various reasons:
Kyle Fawcett: (PC Calgary-North Hill) I am really puzzled by this one. In February 2009, backbench MLA Fawcett was one of Premier Ed Stelmach‘s proudest cheerleaders, evangelizing the Premier on the floor of the Legislature as:
…a man of extraordinary vision, someone who fails to fall into the trap of regressive thinking during challenging times. He is a steady hand at the wheel of the ship in turbulent times. When others retreat, he has the optimism to search for the light at the end of the tunnel, the beacon of hope that all Albertans aspire to. He has the dogged determination to push forward to establish this province’s place in the new world paradigm when the negativity of others is enough to stop progress dead in its tracks.
Eight months later, Fawcett took a complete 180 degree turn and criticized Premier Stelmach for doing “very little, I believe, to instil confidence in at least people in Calgary that he has the leadership capabilities to lead this province.” He soon after apologized and was quietly punished for his outspoken behaviour. It appears that Fawcett wants to be the class rebel and the teachers pet at the same time, but has ended up wearing the dunce cap instead.
Doug Griffiths: (PC Battle River-Wainwright) A year of lateral moves from being shuffled from parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to parliamentary assistant to the Solicitor General makes me wonder if the PCs are blind to talent. Griffiths knows how to use social media effectively by actually providing value and allowing citizens outside the Legislature to get a peek at what personal beliefs and driving motivations have led him to seek office. With alternatives to the near 40 year governing PCs gaining support, independent-minded Griffiths may be in a position to decide whether he wants to stay in the backbenches or join something new.
Ken Kowalski (PC Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock) As Speaker Kowalski celebrated 30 years as an MLA, he also demonstrated his political vintage by outright banning MLAs from using social media such as Twitter and Facebook during Question Period. While I agree that MLAs should respect the institution and proud traditions of the Legislature, rather than outright banning the medium, Kowalski had the opportunity to explore how new technologies could be used to reconnect citizens to their democratic institutions. I offered to help Speaker Kowalski better understand the uses of social media, but I did not receive a response. #fail
Hugh MacDonald (Liberal Edmonton-Gold Bar) Last year, I characterized MacDonald as “obsessed with discovering scandal,” and this year I say the same, but with a slightly more endearing tone. While he does come off as a little nuts, MacDonald is easily one of the hardest working MLAs in the Legislature – spending countless hours digging through files in the Legislature Library and as Chair of the Public Account Committee. AIMco, AHS, and PC MLA extra pay and bonuses have been among MacDonald’s targets in 2009, but I am still not sure if he would know what to do if he uncovered a scandal that stuck.
Len Mitzel (PC Cypress-Medicine Hat) Haven’t heard of Len Mitzel? Not surprising. The backbench MLA has found his niche as the PC caucus’ designated American conference attendee. Over the past year, Mitzel has attended conferences on behalf of the Government of Alberta in Montana (again and again), San Angelo, Laredo, Denver, and Boise, meaning that he likely understands more than most MLAs the important economic relationship that our province has with the western United States.
Rachel Notley: (NDP Edmonton-Strathcona) Notley has proven to be a consistently good parliamentarian. She is intelligent, articulate, and has worked hard to provide a clear voice for her constituents on the floor of the Legislature (on a wide range of issues). Lord only knows why NDP members have not demanded that she become the leader of her party.
Kevin Taft (Liberal Edmonton-Riverview) Freed from the burden of leading Alberta’s Liberal Party, Taft has returned to a more familiar role as Official Opposition Health Critic. Having written and researched extensively about public health care in Alberta in his pre-political life, Taft has proven to be a formidable opponent to Premier Stelmach and Minister Liepert over the past year.
Edmonton Pride Parade revellers waved rainbow flags Saturday afternoon as they booed and yelled “shame” at Edmonton-Glenora MLA Heather Klimchuk, the first government minister to participate in the annual celebration.
As the Service Alberta minister spoke to a crowd of thousands at Sir Winston Churchill Square, the shouts were louder than she was.
The boos were in response to the provincial government’s passage of Bill 44 nearly two weeks ago. The bill made controversial changes to Alberta’s Human Rights Act by giving parents the right to take their children out of classes dealing with sexual orientation, human sexuality and religion.
Critics argued the new law put teachers in danger of facing human rights complaints and created a second tier of rights.