November 20, 2014
Response to the Throne Speech
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It is my pleasure to rise today to speak in response to the Speech from the Throne. I should put everyone at ease because I did hear a few groans when you reminded people I have 90 minutes. I will not use the full 90 minutes. Yes, I figured I’d get at least some consensus and a round of applause on that.
It is always a pleasure for me to hear His Honour the Honourable the Lieutenant Governor deliver the Speech from the Throne. It always is so hopeful, and it should be no surprise that in the throne speech we, and I in particular, once again found many things to support and be hopeful for.
One of the things I liked in particular was the recognition that we need to build better relations with our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. I was very, very pleased to see in multiple levels throughout the entire throne speech that that’s going to be a priority for this government. As you know, Mr. Speaker, these issues, that are near and dear to my heart, are the reason why I am the Aboriginal Relations critic for my party. I believe it’s foundational for our province to make sure that as we go forward, we go forward in partnership with our friends in our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities to make sure that they are able to share in the incredible prosperity that we know this province has and will continue to enjoy. So to see that we are going to see partnerships in social areas, education, labour force, environment, energy as well as in health care I think is vitally important for us.
I have in the past asked for some accountability around the number of dollars that flow through to us from our federal government for urban aboriginal housing as well as urban aboriginal health initiatives, and I’ve been unsuccessful in being able to get answers to those questions. With the renewed focus in this throne speech on making sure that we do everything that we can to ensure the integration of urban aboriginals, I’m hopeful that I’ll have a better answer to that question when I ask it again in the future.
The other area that, again, it’s hard to find fault with, because it sounds very similar to my own leadership campaign bid back five and a half years ago, when I was running for leader of the Wildrose Party, is to see the five core principles that have been identified as areas that this government intends to work on. Of course, listed on page 2 of the throne speech: a focused commitment to sound, conservative fiscal principles. Who can disagree with that? Ending entitlements and restoring the public trust: again, who could possibly disagree? Maximizing the value of our natural resources and respecting property rights: protecting private property rights is one of the reasons why I decided to run for provincial public office. Establishing our province as an environmental leader and increasing Albertans’ quality of life by being a leader in the areas of health, education, seniors’ care, and skills training: in all of that my colleagues in their critic roles, I think, have distinguished themselves in advocating for some changes in that regard. Also, accountability and transparency, one of the core principles that I think every one of the opposition parties has been asking for over the last number of years that I’ve been in the Legislature.
Other things that I was pleased to see and that, I’m sure, my colleague for Little Bow was pleased to see since he’s been such a champion: getting a program in place for proper bridge maintenance and repair. I’m very pleased to see that that was referenced in the throne speech. I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that there will be lots of questions asked on that as a progress report as we go forward over the coming months leading up to the next election.
In addition, I’m sure that my colleague the MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat was pleased to see that there are now going to be biannual reports. Two times a year they’re going to have report cards on the progress of infrastructure projects. My colleague from Cypress-Medicine Hat has been tireless in putting forward a number of studies and suggestions about how to better manage infrastructure. He’s now moving on to the environment portfolio, but I think he can be gratified that the government has appeared to listen to him in that regard as well.
In addition, my colleague from Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills has been a champion, as have other members of the opposition, on making sure that legal aid is expanded for those on AISH in particular, so I was pleased to see that that is a commitment that was made in this throne speech.
I would like to give the government the benefit of the doubt that they are actually going to implement the agenda that was outlined in this throne speech. Sadly, we don’t have much in the way of a record that would demonstrate that we should have that level of confidence. I go back to the 2012 Speech from the Throne: 10 key priorities, two of them now apparently completely repudiated. We heard, of course, the Health minister today say that the issue of family care clinics is completely off the table, and if you go back and look at that 2012 speech, there are very few areas where the government made meaningful progress, and in some cases they’re walking away from it altogether.
In 2014, once again, there was actually a laundry list of things that the government intended to accomplish – five key areas, 34 different priorities – and virtually none of them has had any meaningful progress on them. Unfortunately, looking at past practice, the problem is not the ideas and the vision that are laid out. The problem is that the government has a very difficult time actually meeting any of its commitments.
We also look at the list of priorities in this new throne speech. It’s demonstrating a lot of recycled promises from the past. The question is whether or not they are going to actually deliver.
It’s with great sadness that I noted a few minutes ago that the Senate has failed to pass a provision that would have seen the Keystone pipeline get approved. [some applause] I know that my friends in the New Democrat opposition may be pleased to see that, but the rest of us are very unhappy to see that.
I would point out, of course, that this is something the Premier said today as a justification for why he had to appoint his friend to the position rather than have an open competition, that he thought that he had the best chance of being able to get this project approved in the Senate. Well, it failed. I’m very hopeful and will be very supportive of the Premier and this government in their aspirations to extend market access, whether it’s Energy East or Gateway or Trans Mountain or some other proposal, but I have to say that this is certainly a setback right at the beginning of the Premier’s term.
The laundry list of problems that are identified in the throne speech that need a solution: I guess it’s pretty clear to me that we have to be mindful of the fact that the reason there are those problems is because of the members opposite and the successive years and decades of government that have brought us to a point where we have so many problems that require so many solutions. It’s also part of the reason why we’re skeptical at some of the approaches that they appear to be taking. There are a number of areas where they appear to be going right back into the same area of difficulty that we saw with the previous Premier. This is a government that did not get a mandate to borrow for capital purposes. They have been desperately trying over the last two and a half years to try to convince Albertans that they voted for something other than what they voted for.
I think we all remember pretty clearly that the mandate of this government was to be able to manage our finances without going into debt, yet here we have in the throne speech once again an affirmation that there’s going to be borrowing for capital purposes only. The problem with that is that it seems to imply that this government has had a history of running operational deficits. There was only one year that this government in recent political history ran an operational deficit, and that was in 2008, when we had a global financial crisis. We’ve virtually always had an operational surplus. It’s certainly not a bar to strive for to say that you’re going to do something that you’ve always done.
The problem that we have is that we now have a government that doesn’t seemingly have any intention of ever getting out of debt financing, and I don’t think that this is something that Albertans want to see. They’ve admitted in the throne speech in multiple places that we’re a province of 4 million people, growing to 6 million people by 2040. We may be at 8 million people by the end of my lifetime. So if we’re going to see a 50 per cent increase in the number of people in this province – if you look at Stats Canada, they talk about how it’s going to increasingly be a younger generation of individuals coming here, who will bring with them, of course, their young families, who require schools as well as medical attention – we’re going to need 50 per cent more of everything. We’re going to need 50 per cent more schools, 50 per cent more hospitals, 50 per cent more long-term care beds, 50 per cent more transportation infrastructure.
So at what point does this government think we’re going to be able to just wipe our hands and say, “Hey, we’re done building; now we can start paying that debt back”? The fact of the matter is that we are going to constantly have to invest every single year in infrastructure. They have an unsustainable plan because their plan relies on them borrowing to be able to build this capital as opposed to budgeting for it properly every single year without going into debt.
My colleague from Cypress-Medicine Hat put forward a five-year, $50 billion, debt-free capital plan. We are going to continue to press the government to find a way to make sure that we can build our priority infrastructure without going into debt because we’ve seen what happens in other jurisdictions when they decide that it’s okay to borrow for capital purposes. The amount of borrowing continues to go up, the amount of finance charges continues to go up, and you never ever see them making any strides toward paying the money back.
There is lip service paid in the throne speech, of course, to only borrowing with a clear debt repayment plan. Well, of course, the former Finance minister argued that that’s what he had in place. If you look at the amount of money he was setting aside, it was nowhere near enough to be able to get us to a point where we would have the balloon payment available when those bonds came due. In fact, I think it would have taken 80 years to pay off the current level of borrowing with the amount of repayment plan that the previous Finance minister had set aside. I’ll be looking to see whether or not that changes in the next budget, but I have to say that I’m not hopeful.
The other areas where it seems like the government is saying one thing but, I suspect, are going to do another: they talk about moving away from a five-year plan to a 25-year plan. I have to say, based on their history, that this may sound visionary when they say it and put it on paper, but when you look at their history and their record, it sounds absurd that a government that has been completely incapable of building the schools that were promised two and a half years ago would somehow be able to foresee into the future what the 25-year capital plan would be. I’ll be interested in seeing what is on that list. But I have to tell you that I’m very skeptical, if they haven’t been able to meet the demands that we have currently, that we can actually look at a 25-year plan with anything other than raised eyebrows and skepticism.
They talk about keeping taxes low and say that they’re going to have no sales tax, but I think that underlying that message and certainly from the answers the Premier gave me today, it appears that other taxes will certainly be on the table. The fact that he was unable to give an unequivocal answer to the question of whether or not he would raise any existing taxes or bring in new ones suggests to me very strongly that Albertans are looking in the upcoming budgets at a government that is going to throw away the Alberta advantage and start looking at ways of increasing taxes rather than taking the advice, that we’ve been giving them for years, of getting their spending under control.
They talk about having a straightforward budget presentation, but here we have it once again. They’re not going back to the Klein-Dinning gold standard of how budgets should be presented: total dollars in, total dollars out, and what do you have left over, a surplus or a deficit? In fact, to say in a statement that you’re going to have balanced budgets and clear fiscal budget presentation but you’re still going to go into deb
t shows me that it’s completely incongruous. We’re going to continue to see the amount of debt go up.
They talk about ending excessive severances for political staff. Of course, when this promise was first delivered, it talked about ending excessive severance packages for all staff. Now, the fact that they’ve narrowed it down to just a handful of top political staffers suggests to me that there isn’t a level of seriousness about addressing this issue. It was only two weeks ago that we heard that Allaudin Merali has walked away with a $900,000 severance payment, which is an absolute slap in the face to our front-line workers. How many LPNs could that have hired rather than continuing hand over fist to give money to these individuals who have excessive severance packages along with their excessive compensation packages.
They talk about ending sole-source contracts – but here’s the fine print – in all but exceptional circumstances. Let’s call this the Navigator clause because we certainly know the argument in the Legislature about why Navigator was hired on a sole-source communications contract was that it was because of exceptional circumstances. I have to wonder which contracts are going to be able to get a fast track because of that couched language.
They also have a very interesting line in the throne speech that I’ll be keeping an eye on. They want to make a further distinction between registered lobbyists and government consultants. I’ll tell you what I’m reading in between the lines there. What I’m reading in between the lines there is that there are certain people who are going to be recategorized from being lobbyists, who have to register and so be transparent about the work that they’re doing, to being government consultants, who don’t have to register and therefore don’t have to be accountable and transparent about the work that they do. I think we need to keep an eye on how that is going to end up turning out.
There’s a statement about greenhouse gases, “advancing efforts to monitor, measure, and report on our progress,” but what I find very interesting once again is that it doesn’t actually talk about achieving any targets. This is fundamentally the problem with the government’s plan and its approach to market access. We will not get market access for our product until we start making meaningful and achievable actual reductions in greenhouse gases and other measures to improve our air, land, and water.
Unfortunately, effort is not the same as achievement. It’s a lesson that this government still has not learned.
The biggest disappointment is that there is no realistic plan to deal with health care. There are lots of platitudes. There is lots of language around giving more respect to health advisory councils, talking about continuing care beds and how that’s going to somehow magically solve the emergency room crisis. But you do very much get the sense that this government believes that under their new management they’re just going to be better central planners than what was happening under the previous Health minister. There’s no real change in direction, no real change in approach.
They certainly have not learned the lessons that Dr. Paul Parks has indicated, that the only real way that we’re going to free up capacity in our emergency rooms and be able to start making a dent in reducing the amount of surgeries and procedures is by building long-term care nursing beds as well as having transition beds so that you can stabilize patients and move them into an area where they can get 24-hour care.
It is very clear when you talk to emergency room doctors that if somebody is going to be released from hospital and they’re not going to be able to get that 24-hour care, they won’t release them. As a result, you end up having somewhere between 400 to 700 people who are in inappropriate care, costing $1,650 a day, when they would be more comfortable in a proper long-term care nursing facility, getting the 24-hour care they need at $150 a day. I see no evidence that the government recognizes that that is at the heart of their solution, and they demonstrated once again in the throne speech that they don’t know the difference between continuing care beds, long-term care nursing beds, and the impact of building the wrong type of bed as opposed to the kind that we actually need.
On the issue of school construction my colleague from Chestermere-Rocky View went through it in some detail today, as did I. They’ve only built 18 schools since 2011. They’re projecting that they’re somehow going to manage to get things together to build 49 schools in the next 23 months when none of them are even started. Most of them are just barely in the design phase. I have to say that this is another example where the aspirations laid out in the throne speech are very unlikely to be delivered on.
Then, of course, the disaster recovery program. I’m very hopeful that there is going to be a resolution of the appeals by the end of the year, but this is, again, one more area where I fear a political announcement was made to aid a by-election as opposed to a realistic announcement because of the assessment of the situation. There are thousands of individuals, not only in my riding but also in the riding of the hon. Education minister, the representative for Calgary-Elbow, who have not even begun the appeal process, who have felt revictimized by the mismanagement of the disaster recovery program.
The fact that there are still so few individuals internal to the department working on these files leaves me very unsettled, not only because I fear that these individuals are going to have to wait years before they get resolution, as has happened in previous flood incidents in Medicine Hat. But what happens in the event of another flood or another fire or some other major disaster? The government has made absolutely no progress on being able to create a disaster recovery program that works. It’s certainly not working for the people who have had the misery of having to deal with it for the last 18 months. We are going to continue to press the government to make sure that they make some real progress on that.
As for the flood mitigation issue, it was already discussed earlier today, the fact that projects were announced without consultation and buy-in from the city of Calgary. I think that’s just one more example of seeing a government that does business under the new management the same way they did under the old management, making decisions without making sure that you’ve got the individuals at the table who are most impacted, brought onboard, and have the buy-in.
The biggest disappointment, though, is Bill 1, Respecting Property Rights Act. Madam Speaker, it is instructive and symbolic that this entire throne speech is anchored by a bill, Bill 1, that has a mere seven words to describe what the government is going to do. It shows how much the government is long on spin but short on understanding. Let me quote the press release attached to the throne speech. It says this: “Bill 1, focused on respecting property rights, was introduced by [the Premier] and will be the foundation of a new relationship between government and property owners.”
Now, the Premier likes to trumpet his expertise on property rights, and his statements on property rights have hinted at an actual understanding of these issues. But what happens when he gets a chance to put his actual words into action? We get a one-sentence bill that repeals only one piece of legislation that we know has been causing problems for our landowners for the last number of years, a piece of legislation, incidentally, Madam Speaker, that was so bad that even this PC government, with its long track record of stomping all over property rights, lacked the resolve to actually proclaim. Now it’s being repealed. The government’s actions did not live up to the talk. Really, no property rights expert, certainly no lawyer who claims to understand property rights and property rights legislation, can believe that the unproclaimed former Bill 19 is all that’s wrong with property rights in Alberta.
But, really, the weakness and tone deafness of Bill 1 is symbolic of what’s wrong with this entire throne speech, Mr. Speaker. Throne speeches are supposed to set an agenda for government. They are supposed to be a way for the Premier and the cabinet to signal to Albertans and the civil service what is important, what to expect, what will come. Albertans who are looking to have a forward-looking agenda that would prepare Alberta for the future and deal with the big issues we are facing will undoubtedly be deeply disappointed in this throne speech. The Premier likes to claim that the province is under new management, but the throne speech makes it clear that the new management has no strategic or operational plans. If this were a business, the market would be expressing deep concerns about how the new management has such a poor grasp of the fundamentals.
Now, let me tell you what I think should have been in the throne speech. What we saw in this throne speech offered very little departure in policy from the previous Premier. We didn’t get a new strategic plan for the future of Alberta. All we really received was recycled campaign promises but no real details on how those promises will be kept or, most importantly, how they will be paid for with the price of oil now heading towards, at the very least, $70 a barrel.
The PC government is continuing on its policy to borrow billions of dollars to pay for basic infrastructure. There is no plan for how to pay for these promises with targeted spending or actual improvements in performance of core government services. That leaves only new taxes and new fees, and I am sure that Albertans will have already noted that the PC Party and the Premier are already hedging on those two issues. This matters because the Premier made a lot of expensive promises during the campaign, but Albertans not only want promises. They want a plan for how to achieve them, and they want to understand how these will be paid for.
The Wildrose has very clear differences with the governing party. The Wildrose believes that the budget should be balanced, really balanced, every year and that the books should be an honest reflection of the money coming in and the money going out and the amount being spent on debt. The governing party will have racked up $20 billion worth of debt by 2016. At this rate they will have $40 billion worth of debt by 2020, or $60 billion worth of debt by 2024, costing us billions upon billions of dollars in annual interest charges.
We believe low taxes, streamlined regulation, and a level playing field is the best way to support families, attract new investment, and diversify the economy. PCs continue to pick winners and losers.
We believe our energy business needs a stable, predictable environment to operate under. The governing party hasn’t provided stability. We’ve seen arbitrary changes to royalty rates. We’ve seen cancelled leases up in the oil sands and elsewhere, and we’ve seen increasing red tape that’s undermined investor confidence.
We believe we need stable, low-cost electricity to fuel our continued growth and protect consumers. The governing party continues to build transmission lines that we don’t need. They make consumers pay the full cost for the amount of cost overruns, and they seemingly have no ability to moderate excessive and extreme price spikes.
We believe we need to improve our reputation on the environment, and to do that, we need to make real and measurable progress on improving the quality of our air, water, and land and reducing greenhouse gases. I’ve already mentioned that the government has no plan to actually achieve any of its targets, but there certainly is a lot of PR around what they intend to tell the international community that they’re doing without making progress.
We believe we need a new relationship with our municipalities that treats our municipal partners as another order of government and flows through a stable, growing number of dollars in a permanent transfer program with no strings attached. The governing party has created a begging model for our municipalities, where our cities and towns have to guess where they are on the priority list of projects and then also hire special staff to fill in application forms and lobby for grants.
We believe our heritage savings trust fund should grow from about $15 billion to about $150 billion and that future generations should be able to share in our resource wealth. If this government had even begun to manage our resource wealth properly, just reinvesting the dollars from the heritage savings trust fund back into the account, it would already be worth $150 billion today. Instead, it not only racked up new debt, but they blew through almost $17 billion worth of savings that were in the sustainability fund, and they continue to spend every last dollar of resource revenue every single year and are not setting enough money aside to pay the debt back when it comes due.
We believe health care should be decentralized to the local level, with day-to-day decisions for staffing and surgeries and procedures made by hospital administrators with their own budgets overseen by local hospital boards. The governing party: they’ve centralized our $18 billion health system into the office of the Health minister, they have centralized EMS services, they have centralized home care, they have centralized lab services, and they have no real plan, as I have mentioned, to be able to clear up the problem that we have in our emergency rooms or build enough 24-hour long-term care nursing beds.
We believe that parents have a fundamental right to choose the kind of education they want for their kids. The governing party continues to introduce fads in the education curriculum that are impacting our students’ international performance, continues to believe in fuzzy math, fuzzy report cards. In the meantime school boards are forced to charge fees to make up shortfalls. They promise schools, then they don’t build them, and then they make political decisions on which projects do ultimately get approved.
We believe in free votes in the Legislature so that every single citizen can know that they will be represented on the issues that matter to them. The governing party simply doesn’t.
We believe we need a return to ethical behaviour in government: no first-class flights, no five-star hotels, no lavish salaries and six-figure severance packages, no sole-source contracts, no special deals for cronies, no dumping failed politicians and political staffers into top jobs in the civil service, no buying elections with shady, last-minute spending announcements. In short, we need clean government.
Albertans are looking for a new generation of leadership with innovative ideas about how to move Alberta forward, and in looking at this throne speech, they would be disappointed. With resource revenues in steady decline, the Premier needs to do a better job explaining how his major promises can be kept while improving the outcomes for government services. Sooner or later the Premier is going to have to come to terms with reality and realize that governing is more than recycling old campaign promises or trying to distance himself from the mistakes of the last three Premiers. Albertans deserve a government ready to meet the challenges of our province head-on and to be honest enough with them about how they’re going to achieve it. They didn’t get that sort of government out of this throne speech.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.