Thursday, March 27, 2008

Now that we have our mandate...

... its time for the mandate letters.

Before I get into some of the specific directions that the Premier has given his cabinet, I wanted to share a thought that came to me after having lunch with a good friend of mine yesterday.

This friend is certainly politically aware, not terribly partisan but certainly not a PC supporter.

I didn't ask her how she voted this last election and I still don't think it was for us, but she's symbolic of a number of Albertans whose hostility towards a PC government simply isn't there anymore. She's a teacher and was thoroughly impressed with how the issues surrounding the pension liability were handled. She and I both agreed that there is still much work to be done, but there have been very promising steps taken. As someone who would have gladly led a protest against anything Ralph Klein did, she generally notices a remarkably different tone from this government.

Things like the mandate letters are a prime example of this. They are also a pretty good indicator of some of the major initiatives coming down the pipe over the next year or two.

Some of the items that stood out in my mind them include:

from Advanced Education and Technology
-reduce the interest rate on student loans from prime plus 2.5 percentage points to prime.
-increase the number of physician graduates from 227 to 295 by 2012;
-increase the number of registered nurse graduates from 1,375 to 2,000 by 2012; and
-increase the number of licensed practical nurse graduates from 559 to 1000 by 2012.

I suspect that the most ardent of Student Unionists will claim that the reduction in the interest on student loans is insufficient. These are the same people who don't truly understand the cost of their education and won't be satisfied until our post-secondary education system is completely free. For many students, however, this reduction in the interest rate will come as welcome news.

The reduction in the goal for physician graduates is a pretty clear admission that our targets during the campaign aren't achieveable in the near-term. Still, a sizeable increase shows that we're willing to make a serious effort. The numbers for RNs and LPNs is very encouraging given the important work they do on the front lines of our health system.

from Children and Youth Services
-support the creation of 14,000 new child care spaces by 2011, including in-school and out-of-school care, family day homes and day cares; and
-provide low and middle income families with a subsidy to cover the costs for out-of-school child care.

This is a big commitment and will build on the work Janis Tarchuk had already started with the provincial boost in the wages of Alberta's child care workers. Given the wording of this action item, I suspect that the end result will be somewhere between the left wing's universal day care proposals and the federal government's choice in child care plan.

from Environment
-inform Albertans on our environmental stewardship to ensure a clear provincial, national and international understanding of Alberta’s leadership, commitment and action on the environment.

This is going to be a VERY important job. With the increasingly alarmist rhetoric coming from opponents of the oilsands and Alberta in general, it will be critical for us as a province to get out there and tell our story in as aggressive a manner as the anti-development filmmakers have been.

from Finance and Enterprise
-introduce a 10-per-cent tax credit to stimulate private sector scientific research and experimental development in Alberta.

This item really ties in with some of the initiatives that the Departments of Environment, Energy and Advanced Education and Technology will be pushing over the next number of years. Incentives are always more stimulative than penalties and this tax credit should move to encourage companies to increase their R&D budgets with the end goals of reducing environmental footprints and increasing productivity and profitability.

from Health and Wellness
-improve the health care delivery model to ensure the roles, responsibilities and structures in the system support the most efficient delivery of services.

There are already groups who are claiming that the verbage of "improving efficiency" is code word for privatization. This is typical and, frankly, contributes nothing to a productive debate on the future of healthcare.

I don't believe that the American system is the way to go. I'm fairly certain that no one in the government caucus, particularily Health Minister Ron Liepert, believes it either.

The driving belief behind this call to dramatically improve efficiency is that the health budget has become a black hole for taxpayer dollars. Budgets have doubled in the last 10 years and we have seen no improvements in the level of care.

Those who manage our respective health regions, particularily those who get paid excessively for doing it, are simply not delivering results. Their free ride should be coming to a swift end as we move to get real value for the dollars that go in to our healthcare system.

from Housing and Urban Affairs
-make additional public land available for affordable housing purposes.

This little item may not create many waves in most of Alberta, but I can tell you it is issue #1 when it comes to affordable housing in Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region.

While the shortage of skilled tradespeople to build housing is certainly a critical issue, the root cause of the problem can be traced to a lack of land on which to build said housing. Even though Fort McMurray is surrounded by unused land, it is almost exclusively crown land controlled by the province.

An action item calling on the Minister to release more land for housing development is hugely important in the fight to bring housing costs under control in my hometown and, if acted upon swiftly and decisively, will be very well-received by the residents of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo.

from Transportation
-double the provincial investment in highway repaving and bridge repair over the next three years.

This is a big ticket item, and an important one to boot. While our highway system is certainly extensive, a number of routes need upgrading. I will in interested to see which specific highways are on the priority list for repaving.

I will admit I was surprised not to see any specific action items regarding the timetable for Highway 63 listed in the mandate letter. No doubt it is an area of this department that will be closely watched by many.

from Treasury Board
-implement the 20-year Capital Plan.
-create a strategic plan for developing the oil sands region.

These two simple sentences will pretty well ensure that Lloyd Snelgrove will be one of the busiest people in the Alberta Legislature.

The 20-year Capital Plan is already a public document that contains a number of visionary and long-term projects, but implementing it will be a huge undertaking that will require the involvement of every single department.

The idea of a strategic plan for developing the oil sands region is long overdue. Still, the Minister has a number of intelligent people he can lean on for direction as he moves forward on this item. What should be encouraging to all Albertans is that we are likely to see a much broader consultation than perhaps would have been undertaken by the previous regime. I look forward to hearing from those who will no doubt have the opportunity to provide much input on this action item, namely Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake and Heather Kennedy from the Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat.

Some of the mandate letters are shorter on details than others, but I don't think that means that there won't be anything for those Ministers to do. Heather Klimchuk and Lindsay Blackett, for example, won't have a shortage of action items over the next little while. For Minister Klimchuk, she'll need to see through the final stages and release of the license plate consultation (something near and dear to this plate geek's heart). Minister Blackett, meanwhile, has to essentially re-create a deparment that hasn't existed since the 1980s and bring it into 21st century Alberta.

I'm anxious to see what specific legislation the spring sitting of the Alberta Legislature will bring and what dynamic we'll see unfolding on both the government and opposition benches. Each group seems to have their own unique strengths as we head back into session. After today, though, we certainly seem to have a pretty clear direction.


  1. I think you may be confusing the Transportation mandate, there is a huge difference between "upgrading" as you mentioned, and "repaving and bridge repair." The difference being that roads have a 17 year shelf life, many of our roads have reached that point now and need to be fixed just to maintain their current function, so that does not at all refer to upgrading highways and twinning highways.

    Personally, i don't believe Hwy 63 deserves to be twinned at this time, eventually, yes, but there has been far too much media attention on it for the gov't to ignore it. It was another Klein promise that was made before looking at the facts. Thank god we now have a Premier who actually does things based on intelligent information and fact.

  2. Well, i'll admit the timing is bad for my comment, there was an accident on Hwy 63 today for petes sake. However the facts speak for themselves, Hwy 63 is statistically speaking BELOW the Provincial average in terms of accidents. What's further is that the number of cars per day on the HWY is far below the norm for twinning a highway (which is about 10 thousand per day). Hwy 63 is at about 7,000. So, i'm not saying not to twin it because the commitment has been made, but I just hope people realize it isn't being twinned because it's a "highway of death" it's being twinned because of a former Premier. that's all i'm saying!

  3. For all the repair needed on Highway 63, they might as well doing everything needed to make it safer. That includes twinning it. Driving 63 is a very bumpy ride and is in need of massive repaving. Why tie up the highway to repave and repair, only to tie it up again for the eventual twin? Hwy 63 is in need of urgent attention. Drive it a couple times and you will understand.

  4. Sad to see campaign promises already getting watered down. After 37 years in power, you'd think this government would know exactly what it could and couldn't do. Other than lie during a campaign that is.

    As for education, arguing against anything that makes it easier for people to get an education only comes from those who don't realize how much of a public benefit a post-secondary education is.

    Every extra year of education the populace has on average translates to about a 3% rise in the GDP of the region according to the OECD. Studies have shown that the Alberta government gets back between $4 and $21 for every dollar it invests in post-secondary education which comes from things like people who are better educated get better jobs and are unemployed less, so pay more taxes and use less social support. Better jobs also lead to less spent on healthcare as people can afford better food, have less work stress and more time to exercise, to less crime as people don't need to turn to it if they have better jobs, to more volunteerism and money given to charity since they're able to afford it, more successful entrepreneurship (ie, more jobs for everyone), and not least, a stronger likelihood of their own kids going to post-secondary with enough support from their parents that the virtuous cycle continues for free.

    I also find it interesting that the action on the environment is a propaganda exercise rather than.. well.. action.

    As for the unique dynamic between government and opposition.. let's get real. With so little opposition to raise any kind of voice, the dynamic is going to be that the tories are going to show up for the show, and then go do whatever the hell it is they wanted to do in the first place -- and if Albertans have complaints.. well.. they should have thought of that during the election.

    About the only thing good to come out of this supermajority will be that with so little response, it'll be harder than usual for them to gerrymander the ridings.