The key files on the desk of the Premier of Alberta at this time are complex and varied. Here are the top six:
1. What to do about the financial situation in Alberta.
Alberta, unlike many parts of North America, has full employment, is experiencing significant economic activity and is also very attractive destination for many seeking work. With a grey tsunami looming (with its impact on health care), spending on both operating and capital for Government will increase while revenues are, even on optimistic scenarios, flat or actually declining. Alberta currently spends more per capita on government services than many Canadian Provinces and US States, but doesn’t show substantially better results (except in education on a limited range of measures). Alberta has both a spending problem and a revenue problem. Courageous action is needed.
The other challenge with this file is that this file belongs to Doug Horner. He is using this file as a power base for his bid for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Premier knows that he is, de facto, running the Government. Changing the mind-set of Albertans with respect to revenue, debt and finance is one challenge related to this file; dimming Horner is the other.
Alberta has a world-class education system at the moment, but a Minister is out to wreck it in the name of austerity. The Minister, Jeff Johnson, doesn't see it like this of course, but that is what is happening.
The issue is that teachers are seeking changes in their working conditions (hours worked, nature of the work) so that they can be better prepared for the transformation the Minister (and his two predecessors talked about). The Minister has systematically and brutally gone about destroying trust and understanding both in terms of process and in terms of rhetoric. Teachers no longer trust the Minister and the Minister has now made it clear that he doesn’t trust them (or for that matter school trustees).
But teachers are just one part of the problem. Building and staffing new schools are the other. School systems cannot cope with demand in major cities and other schools cannot cope with falling enrollment. There needs to be some new thinking about schooling. It will not come from this Minister.
Then we have post secondary education. UofA is in the hole for $10m and goodness knows how bad things are at Athabasca. The Premier has already sent in the clowns for this portfolio, but re-imagination is not the strong suit of the Deputy Premier (who is conveniently absent from the house as it returns and will not be present for the budget – a shrewd move for someone with leadership aspirations).
3. Health Care
Alberta Health has retained KPMG for their work on results based management and is not able to see too far forward in terms of outcome based budgeting for its future, given growing demand. The dispute with doctors will not help.
Klein kept hinting at the need to look seriously at how health care is delivered, but caved into those who see the health system through rose tinted glasses. It is way past time for a radical rethink of the largest cost component of the Provincial budget. A smart and courageous Premier would position this as an opportunity and start a serious process.
4. Environment and Energy
The Premier has a competent and very insightful Minister of ESRD. But she has a challenge. It is time to rethink the approach to environmental policies and practices – the green/white zones, forest management, water, biodiversity – and not to cow tow to the energy companies. Time to put the future before the horse.
Since oil and gas no longer deliver the revenue goods, it is also a good time to get tough on regulation, royalty and compliance. Rather than pussy foot about hoping that the world would change (“if only you would all change, we could be the energy super-power we have always wanted to be”).
It is also time to do the right thing for Wood Buffalo and put community before oil – allocate the land and close the deal. A tough call, but the right one.
Social inequality is growing in Alberta and under pseudo-Premier Horner will grow further. The gap between rick and poor is growing and those in poverty are finding it harder and harder to cope. We can expect, with the Horner mantras of “no new money” and “debt is bad” ringing after March 7th, poverty and inequity will grow. Yet Alberta is a wealthy place. Rethinking social and economic policies to promote equity would be a smart thing to do.
6. The Other File
The other file on the Premiers desk is the career choice and options file. This is the file she must be looking at frequently, given that the knives are out and her days seem (at least to some) numbered. Judge, Ambassador, President of a University…what next…time for her to look carefully at her next move before she is rushed into it by “events”.