Sending a strong message that he just might not trust his party’s MLAs to act unsupervised, Premier Jim Prentice held a press conference shortly after the vote and publicly ordered his PC MLAs to backtrack on their decision to reinstate the Auditor General funding. This move served to redirect the public focus from cuts to the Child and Youth Advocate and on the cuts to the Auditor General.
Mr. Prentice’s directive removes the thin veneer of “committee independence.” It was always assumed that PC MLAs received their marching orders from the Premier’s Office, but typically those types of dispatches are sent from the 3rd floor before the committee meetings, not after the votes have already been counted.
Not one of the Progressive Conservative MLAs on the committee, including former Wildrose MLAs Gary Bikman and Jeff Wilson, had the fortitude to defend the decision they made last week. Only NDP MLA David Eggen and Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman voted against the funding cut.
And now, because of Mr. Prentice’s orders, both the Auditor General and Child and Youth Advocate will face budget cuts this year.
Looking past the thick-rhetoric of “tough economic times,” the Office of the Auditor General is probably the last office of the Legislature that should have its funding cut. As Mr. Prentice and Finance Minister Robin Campbell plan to impose a 9% across the board budget cut, the Auditor General should have the funding available to audit the financial statements and the systems of government.
With an election expected within weeks, the 43-year long governing PCs are likely cautious of any further scandals or critiques that a fully-funded Auditor General could uncover.
This is not the first time the PCs have cut funding to the Auditor General.
In 2009, then-Auditor General Fred Dunn announced the delay or cancellation of 27 out of 80 planned system and financial audits due to lack of financial resources. At the time, backbench PC MLA Jonathan Denis (now Justice Minister) was quoted as justifying the lack of funding to the Auditor General by defending that year’s one-year MLA pay freeze. [editor’s note: Alberta is always in tough economic times]
In my nearly ten years writing about politics in Alberta on this blog, 2014 was easily the most exciting. The sheer number of scandals, controversies, fumbles and resignations made for new content on a daily basis. If I had the time and resources, I could have easily written three or four posts a day for most of the year. As this year comes to an end, I took a look through this year’s posts and compiled a list of the top ten political moments in Alberta of 2014. Thank you for reading and enjoy the list.
10. Take a hike, Rob Anders
After 17 years as one of the most hyper-conservative politicians in Ottawa, Member of Parliament Rob Anders was finally shown the door by Conservative Party members. In April 2014, Mr. Anders lost a hotly contested Conservative Party nomination race in Calgary-Signal Hill to former Progressive Conservative MLA Ron Liepert. His second attempt at a nomination was in the rural riding of Bow River outside Calgary, where Mr. Anders was defeated by Brooks Mayor Martin Shields.
9. Auditor General on Climate Change A July 2014 report from Auditor General Merwan Saher found no evidence that the Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development properly monitored the performance of the PC Government’s climate change strategy, which was first implemented in 2008. The report uncovered serious problems with the province’s expensive Carbon Capture and Storage strategy. Mr. Saher’s report found that the total emissions reductions from the CCS program was expected to be less than 10% of what was originally anticipated. The Auditor General also reported that Alberta was unlikely to meet its 2020 targets to reduce carbon emissions.
5. Liberal near win in Fort McMurray-Athabasca
What should have been a sleepy federal by-election in the heart of Alberta’s Oil Belt turned into a race when Liberal Kyle Harrietha challenged Conservative David Yurdiga for the June 30, 2014 vote to replace retiring MP Brian Jean. Running an energetic campaign, Mr. Harrietha increased his party’s support from 10% in 2011 to 35.3%, placing less than 1,500 votes behind Mr. Yurdiga. The Liberal also defeated his Tory challenger in Fort McMurray, no small feat in the land of the oil sands. The two candidates will face off once again in the new Fort McMurray-Cold Lake riding when the next federal election is held in 2015.
4. The October mini-election Four by-elections on October 27, 2014 provided Albertans with a mini-election less than two months after Mr. Prentice became premier. Triggered by the resignations of former premiers Ms. Redford and Mr. Hancock and PC MLAs Ken Hughes and Len Webber, the votes allowed Mr. Prentice to win a seat in the Assembly along with PC candidates Stephen Mandel, Gordon Dirks and Mike Ellis. The opposition Wildrose had hoped to win at least two of the by-elections, but were upstaged by the NDP in Edmonton-Whitemud and an insurgent Alberta Party in Calgary-Elbow.
3. Jim Prentice becomes Premier
After a first-ballot victory in a lack-lustre and uninspiring leadership contest, Jim Prentice started his time in office with a bang. After being sworn-in, Mr. Prentice implemented a swift de-Redfordization agenda, with daily announcements undoing some of his predecessors more unpopular policies and decisions. Purging Redford era cabinet ministers, selling the government’s fleet of aircraft, keeping the Michener Centre open, backing down from controversial changes to public sector pension plans and cancelling the botched license plate redesign were all no-brainers, but they projected an image of the new premier as a competent chief executive in command. Arguably, Mr. Prentice’s only missteps in his first few months in office were his aborted Gay-Straight Alliances bill and the unease caused after he tactfully dismantled the Official Opposition (see #2 below). Despite his success in distancing himself from Ms. Redford, the main thrust of Mr. Prentice’s government – promoting pipelines and the oil sands abroad – remains the same as hers.
2. Wildrose floor crossings
For four years, PCs told Albertans not to trust those kooky and scary Wildrosers. At the same time, the Wildrosers told Albertans not to trust those crooked and corrupt PCs. But in November and December 2014, Mr. Prentice’s PC Caucus accepted 11 Wildrose MLAs into their ranks, including Official Opposition leader Danielle Smith. The caucus merger, which was either in negotiations for months or sparked by the Wildrose by-election loss (depending on which story you believe),was encouraged by Conservative Godfather Preston Manning (Mr. Manning later apologized for his role). The floor crossing gutted the Official Opposition, left with 5 MLAs and enraged Wildrose supporters, who started a “Recall Danielle” campaign in her Highwood constituency. Five-term Calgary MLA Heather Forsyth stepped in as interim leader until a permanent leader can be chosen in 2015.
1. The spectacular fall of Alison Redford
“Mistakes were made” were some of the last public words Albertans heard from premier Alison Redford before she resigned as MLA for Calgary-Elbow in August 2014. Albertans have never seen a political career crash and burn this badly. A $45,000 flight to South Africa, use of the government plane to return from Palm Springs, alleged fake passenger bookings to ensure her and her staff had the planes to themselves, a secretly constructed private penthouse known as the Skypalace, and long trips to exotic destinations overseas are just some of the allegations of misuse of power she faced prior to her resignation. Months after her resignation, the Auditor General reported the existence of an “aura of power around Premier Redford and her office.”
Alberta’s first woman premier started her time in office with great promise and many Albertans believed she signalled the beginning of a new, more progressive, era in our province. Ms. Redford quickly proved those believers wrong with deep funding cuts to colleges and universities and attacks on public sector workers and their collective bargaining rights.
BANFF – Stepping onto the national stage for the first time since he was appointed as Alberta’s Minister of Health, Stephen Mandel met with his provincial and federal counterparts this week in Banff for the annual Health Ministers meeting. Mr. Mandel co-chaired the meeting, a role his predecessor, Fred Horne, had planned to fill.
The ministers are said to have discussed a wide-range of topics, perhaps most dramatically, a strategy for pharmacare, a plan that could decrease the cost of prescription drugs by billions of dollars each year. This sort of national plan would require the involvement of a federal Conservative Government that has, unfortunately for Canadians, taken a hands-off approach to health care.
Mr. Mandel began on the long road of rebuilding relationships with federal government by meeting with federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose. Despite being represented by federal Conservative MPs in Ottawa, relations between the City and federal government soured in recent years. In November 2010, an angry Mr. Mandel publicly blamed Ms.Ambrose for the failure of the City’s unarticulated plans to host Expo 2017.
CALGARY – The Wildrose Party announced two of its by-election candidates this week. Former Calgary police officer Kathy Macdonald is running against Jim Prentice in Calgary-Foothills and Calgary public school board trustee Sheila Taylor will run in Calgary-West.
A savvy move, Mr. Prentice announced the appointment of Emma May as the executive director of the Premier’s Southern Alberta Office at the McDougall Centre. A well-respected community advocate, Ms. May leads the Calgary River Communities Action Group, which represents residents whose homes were damaged by the 2013 floods.
Ms. May’s appointment may also have an impact on the by-election in Calgary-Elbow, a constituency which includes many flood impacted neighbourhoods. Running as the PC candidate, appointed Education Minister Gordon Dirksis facing strong challengers in Wildrose candidates John Fletcher, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark and Liberal Susan Wright.
The Green Party is expected to announce its candidate in Edmonton-Whitemud shortly. The Social Credit Party will not run candidates in any of the by-elections.
TROUBLED WATERS – CBC reports that the Auditor General Merwan Saher found that sole-source contracts of up to $274,000 were awarded to Navigtor Ltd. during the 2013 southern Alberta floods. The firm has close connections to Mr. Prentice and former Premier Alison Redford.
FLOOR CROSSING? – Rumours are stirring in political circles this week that Mr. Prentice and PC Caucus Whip George VanderBurg have reached out to a handful of Wildrose MLAs in an attempt to convince them to cross the floor. Any opposition floor crossings could be seen as a significant political win for the long-governing PC Party.
In 1971, The Jackson 5 were topping the billboard charts and Peter Lougheed‘s Progressive Conservatives were just starting what has become an uninterrupted 43-year reign as Alberta’s governing party. Recent messaging from the PC Party have certainly drawn inspiration from the band’s famous song – I Want You Back – as the PC Party tries to convince its former members, and former supporters, that all they need is one more chance.
Under the subject line “We want you back!,” an email sent to PC Party supporters over the weekend from party executive director Kelley Charlebois begged former members to renew their memberships to vote in the September 6 leadership vote.
“We’ve seen some upsetting revelations over the past weeks, and we are just as disappointed as you are,” Mr. Charlebois wrote. The email smelled desperate and gave a peek into how much the recent scandals and fiascos have rocked the long-governing party.
Asking for a second chance, former PC candidate Brian Henninger does not believe that voters should take out their frustration on the new premier in an upcoming by-election. “I don’t care what message you want to send to the premier, don’t do it with your vote,” Mr. Henninger told the Calgary Herald. Mr. Henninger was the PC candidate in the 2007 Calgary-Elbow by-election. With former Premier Alison Redford‘s resignation two weeks ago, there will be another by-election held in the same constituency. Voters may not be so kind to the next PC candidate in the upcoming by-election.
Hoping that they will forget what happened and let his political career live again, Finance Minister Doug Horner wrote a long-winded and typo-ridden letter to his PC caucus colleagues, claiming that he is not responsible for the gross misuse of government planes.
While the fleet of government planes is managed by the Finance Department, Mr. Horner claims he was blind to Ms. Redford’s extensive and allegedly personal use of the planes.
A large group of disgruntled backbench PC MLAs are said to be furious with Mr. Horner and on the verge of forcing him to resign from the Finance Ministry.
Mr. Horner’s letter reminded me of the hastily written letter sent by then-junior health minister Raj Sherman to his PC caucus colleagues in 2009 (he was kicked out of the PC caucus shortly afterward). Meanwhile Dr. Sherman, now leading the opposition Liberals, has launched a petition calling on Mr. Horner to resign from cabinet.
When the “Skypalace” scandal was uncovered through a CBC investigation, Infrastructure MinisterWayne Drysdale told the media he cancelled the project in late 2012. Former Infrastructure Minister Ric McIver said he stopped the Skypalace in January 2014. And Deputy Minister Marcia Nelsonconfirmed to the Public Accounts Committee in May 2014 that Mr. McIver issued the cancellation of the residential suite. It is unclear who in the PC Government ordered the secret construction on the penthouse to continue.
It is yet to be seen how many second chances Albertans will give the PCs, but the opposition parties may be starting to feel optimistic about their chances in the next election.
And for those of you with the lyrics stuck in your head, you’re very welcome…
With today’s release of Auditor General Merwan Saher‘s report on Alison Redford‘s travel habits, and as Premier Dave Hancock, leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice and Progressive Conservative MLAs desperately try to distance themselves from their former leader, it is important that we look back to a more optimistic time. During the 2011 PC leadership race, and the provincial election that followed, the former premier (and now former MLA for Calgary-Elbow) seemed to be full of potential and represented a hopeful future for her party and the province.
But, as we are now all aware, promises were broken and “mistakes were made” by Ms. Redford and her government.
Here is a look back to a happier time, in 2011, when then-leadership candidate Ms. Redford was asked why she wanted to become Premier of Alberta:
Editor’s Note: I will be taking a short break from the world of political blogging for the next week to enjoy the limited summer weather that our great country has to offer. To fill your need for daily Alberta politics news in my absence, keep an eye on AlbertaDiary.ca and the always prolific #ableg and #pcldr hashtags on Twitter.
The full report from Auditor General Merwan Saher is scheduled to be released on tomorrow. Ms. Redford resigned today.
This week, her former deputy premier called on Progressive Conservative MLAs to hold an emergency meeting to remove her from the governing caucus. PC leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, the front man for Ms. Redford’s brutal funding cuts to Alberta’s colleges and universities, continues to take advantage of any opportunity to attack the former premier.
And he was not alone. All PC Party leadership candidates have taken aim at Ms. Redford, trying to place the blame for every mistake the government has made for the past two years solely on her.
Mr. Lukaszuk’s main opponent, bank executive Jim Prentice, has tried his best to avoid connecting himself in anyway to his party’s former leader. The front-runner refuses to even mention Ms. Redford by name when speaking to the media.
But while Mr. Prentice is aiming for a complete public divorce from his predecessor, he cannot escape the fact that the majority of his supporters in the PC caucus also supported Ms. Redford.
Ms. Redford’s resignation means that a by-election will need to be called in the Calgary-Elbow constituency within the next six months (by February 5, 2015). This will be the second by-election in Calgary-Elbow since 2007, when former Premier Ralph Klein retired from politics. The Liberals won that by-election.
Kennedy-Glans requests a return
In a strange move that will now be buried under the news of Ms. Redford’s most recent resignation, Independent MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans chose the middle of the summer to distribute a media release declaring that she wants to rejoin the PC caucus. Ms. Kennedy-Glans infamously left the PC caucus days before Ms. Redford’s resignation, saying that she was “increasingly convinced that elements of this 43-year old government are simply unable to make the changes needed to achieve that dream of a better Alberta.” It is unclear what has changed in the past five months to make her change her mind.
As StephenCarter penned on his Calgary Herald blog, Ms. Kennedy-Glans, a) wants a spot in Mr. Prentice’s cabinet, and b) does not want to chance being challenged by a ‘star’ PC candidate in the next election. All the respect that Ms. Kennedy-Glans earned when she left the government on principle on appears to have been lost with this seemingly politically opportunistic move.
A report from Auditor GeneralMerwan Saher released this week found no evidence that the Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development has properly monitored the performance of the PC Government’s climate change strategy which was first implemented in 2008. The report also uncovered serious problems with the province’s expensive Carbon Capture and Storage strategy.
Since it was first announced in 2008, the PC government has committed to hand over more than a billion public dollars to the world’s largest energy companies, including Shell, to develop ways to bottle carbon dioxide deep in the ground.
Progressive Conservative leader-presumptive Jim Prentice dismissed the provincial government’s expensive Carbon Capture and Storage strategy, saying he would move away from the unproven technology. This echoes what the former federal minister told the Globe & Mail editorial board in 2009: “CCS is not the silver bullet in the oil sands.”
Mr. Prentice characterized the project a “science experiment,” which is a generous description (I refer to it as unicorn science).
“It was apparent to the department that the expected reductions from carbon capture and storage will not be achieved. Carbon capture and storage in the 2008 strategy represents the majority of forecasted emission reductions. However, with only two carbon capture and storage projects planned, the total emissions reductions are expected to be less than 10% of what was originally anticipated.” – Auditor General’s report on Alberta’s Climate Change strategy, July 2014 (Page 39)
Not surprisingly, the Auditor General also reports that Alberta is unlikely to meet its 2020 targets to reduce carbon emissions.
I am not sure what is worse: being a climate change denier or believing in climate change but not seriously doing anything to stop it?
Under Premiers Ed Stelmach,Alison Redford and now Dave Hancock, the PC government used funding unproven Carbon Capture and Storage technology to convince the international community and investors that Alberta can ‘green’ the oil sands. While the oil sands represents the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions in Canada, some of Alberta’s largest emissions result from of our large coal burning industry.
But it was not as if no one saw this coming. In 2008, a leaked government memo from a University of Calgary researcher suggested that Carbon Capture and Storage would do little to reduce carbon emissions emanating from Alberta’s oil sands. The report by researcher Dr. David Keith wrote that not enough of the oil sands carbon dioxide could be captured because most emissions are not concentrated enough.
A report by the Munk School of Global Affairs released in 2009 described the Carbon Capture and Storage plan as “sheer folly.” At the same time, Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr characterized Carbon Capture and Storage as an expensive “experiment” and the Wildrose opposition has said many times that it would cancel the project outright (although any government would likely be contractually obligated to complete some of the project funding already committed – or spend funds on legal bills resulting from broken contracts).
PC leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, who served as a senior cabinet minister from 2010 to 2014, told the media that he continues to support the project.
As a public relations exercise, Carbon Capture and Storage has come with a high price. Allocated more intelligently, the hundreds of millions of public dollars spent on Carbon Capture and Storage could have helped Alberta become a world leader in smart innovation and research and development of renewable energy or sustainable transportation.
On March 22, 2013, Ms. Redford traveled on a government plane with her daughter, a political assistant and a member of her security detail from Calgary to Vancouver. In the public flight manifests, the purpose of the trip is listed as “attend meeting(s) with government officials.” If Ms. Redford was attending to government business in Vancouver as the manifest states, it is unclear why, almost a year later, she has decided to pay the costs of the flight.
The government airplane, and presumably its government-employed pilots, parked at Vancouver International Airport until Monday, March 25, 2013, when fight records show they returned to Alberta with the premier, her daughter and her entourage.
The premier has asked Finance minister Doug Horner to “find greater cost efficiencies” in government travel expenses, and has also referred the matter to Auditor General Merwan Saher.
Involving the Auditor General accomplishes two important public relations objectives: first, it allows the government to deflect questions from the media until the AG reports back, and second, it means the opposition cannot ask questions about Ms. Redford’s travel expenses in Question Period until the AG reports back.
As Ms. Redford appears to be the only MLA involved in this scandal, it is unclear who else the Auditor General will investigate.
The airplane scandal comes to light as a new poll shows Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservatives at an all-time low of 25% support province-wide and Ms. Redford with a 20% approval rating.
Meanwhile, leaked emails show Tory organizers were forced to delay the launch of the new “PC Legacy Fund” after it failed to sign up enough PC MLAs and party officials to contribute to the fundraising program.
This latest turbulence begs the question: can Ms. Redford’s leadership survive, and, who stands to gain the most if she crashes and burns?
Last week, he was publicly criticizing Premier Alison Redford for her over-priced $45,000 trip to South Africa (see below) and faced a threat of expulsion from the Progressive Conservative caucus. This week, coincidentally, Edmonton-Riverview PC MLA Steve Young faces a new set of revelations dating back to his time as a Sergeant with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS).
The $45,000 trip to South Africa
It’s the story that won’t disappear. People across Alberta shook their heads in disbelief when they learned the government spent $45,000 to send Ms. Redford and her executive assistant, Brad Stables, to attend Nelson Mandela‘s funeral in South Africa. Bringing Mr. Stables added an estimated $20,000 to the cost. It is unclear why he was required to travel with Ms. Redford to South Africa. Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil made the same trip for less than $1,000. He did not require an executive assistant to accompany him.
Pension changes decreed
Finance minister Doug Horner is proposing significant changes to the province’s public pension plans, which could impact the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of Albertans. But you wouldn’t have read about it in the last election. The 2012 PC Party platform, “Alberta by Design,” does not once mention the word “pension.”
A report from Auditor General Merwan Saher this month chastised the government for not properly consulting with stakeholders about the proposed changes that will impact their members. The Local Authorities Pension Plan board has not endorsed Mr. Horner’s proposed changes.
Anti-labour law blocked by the courts
Court of Queen’s Bench Mr. Justice Denny Thomasissued an injunction halting the Redford government’s controversial Bill 46. Rammed through the Assembly in December 2013, the anti-labour law allowed the Tories to circumvent a neutral arbitration process which could have awarded fair salary increase for public sector employees. Bill 46 would have imposed a salary freeze. Advanced Education minister Dave Hancock said the government will appeal the court’s decision.
“Today starts a new era in marketing for farmers,” Agriculture minister Verlyn Olson boasted in a press released in August 2012, as the federal government dismantled the Canadian Wheat Board. This week, Mr. Olson claimed he would push for greater rail system accountability.
The Wildrose opposition has been equally enthusiastic about the Canadian Wheat Board’s demise (one of its MLAs, Rick Strankman, was once charged for violating the board). But not to be outdone by Mr. Olson, Wildrose MLAs Shayne Saskiw and Drew Barnes are now hosting town hall meetings from Streamstown to Spirit River about the challenges of individual farmers are facing dealing with the large railway corporations.
The fall sitting of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly begins on October 23 and indications suggest that it will be a different than recent sittings. Aside from the brief sitting held in the spring with the almost sole purpose of ejecting retired MLA Ken Kowalski from his long-held spot in Speaker’s Chair, the newly elected Wildrose Official Opposition has had little opportunity to spar with government ministers in a formal setting.
The Wildrose Party’s gains in the April 23, 2012 election marked the first time since before the 1975 election that Alberta’s official opposition composed of mostly MLAs representing rural Alberta constituencies. Between 1986 and 2008, most opposition MLAs were elected to represent constituencies within Edmonton city limits. Due to floor crossings and a by-election, more opposition MLAs resided in Calgary between the 2008 and 2012 elections.
Over the course of the summer, Premier Alison Redford‘s PCs stumbled over issues in rural Alberta which in previous years would have been solved in a closed-door Tory caucus meeting. The closure of the fully-functional Little Bow Continuing Care Centre in Carmangay made the Tories look vengeful towards voters who abandoned their party and the cancellation of funding for the Fort Macleod police training centre made the Tories look foolish for ever approving the porkbarrel project in the first place.
Due to a lack of traditional organized conservative political opposition outside the PC Party, it has been an odd and sometimes humorous sight to watch rookie Wildrose MLA’s stand side-by-side with New Democratic Party MLAs at protest rallies over the course of the summer. While some of Wildrose MLAs first appeared awkward and uncomfortable gripping a megaphone, some of them looked like they were getting the hang of it by summer’s end. In the past, the Liberal and NDP opposition have leaned on groups like the Friends of Medicare and Public Interest Alberta to rally supporters outside the Assembly, but the main conservative voices, like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, have tended to rely on press conferences and media releases rather than rallies on the steps of the Legislature Building.
The legislative agenda presented by the government during this fall sitting will also give Premier Redford an opportunity to shape her defining narrative, which has been absent since she was elected Premier earlier this year. The government will return to its only bill introduced in the short spring sitting, the Workers’ Compensation Amendment Act, to provide additional support to police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and peace officers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths is expected to introduce amendments to the Local Authorities Elections Act, which would extend terms for municipal elected officials from three years to four years. Eduction Minister Jeff Johnson could introduce an Education Act, which would mark the third time the Tories have attempted to introduce a consolidated piece of education legislation in the past few years.
The decision to not release detailed documents could signal a desire for the government to shift away from the public quarterly budget updates, which are meaningless in terms of fiscal planning due to the province’s dependence on fluctuating natural resource commodity prices and have become little more than public relations exercises for the government over the past two decades.
While his party has not had much to celebrate over the past year, Liberal leader Raj Sherman earned a small victory this week. Health Minister Fred Horne announced that the anti-smoking bill introduced by Dr. Sherman and passed before the last election will be proclaimed into law by the Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell. Dr. Sherman’s bill would ban adults from smoking in vehicles where children under the age of 18 are present.